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Better European air quality leads to fewer deaths over the past decade

Utsikt over Praha, med røyk fra piper som stiger opp
Foto: Colourbox

Better air quality has led to a significant reduction of premature deaths over the past decade in Europe. However, the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) latest official data show that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

The tenth issue of the ‘Air quality in Europe — 2020 report’ from EEA is based on the latest official air quality data from more than 4 000 monitoring stations across Europe in 2018.

Four countries complied with WHO guidelines for PM2.5

The analysis presented shows that six Member States exceeded the European Union’s limit value for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2018: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland, and Romania. Only four countries in Europe — Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland — had fine particulate matter concentrations that were below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) stricter guideline values.

Norway also had relatively low PM2.5 concentrations in 2018, even if two measurement stations near traffic measured concentrations a bit above the WHO guidelines.

The EEA report notes that there remains a gap between EU’s legal air quality limits and WHO guidelines. The European Commission seeks to address this issue with a revision of the EU standards under the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

417 000 premature deaths across Europe

Forsiden av EEAs Air Quality Report 2020
The new “Air Quality in Europe” report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) is published on 23 November. Photo: EEA

Exposure to PM2.5 caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018, according to the EEA assessment. About 379,000 of those deaths occurred in EU-28 where 54,000 and 19,000 premature deaths were attributed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3), respectively. (The three figures are separate estimates, and the numbers should not be added together to avoid double counting. See fact box.))

“The largest negative health impacts are observed in central and eastern European countries. This is also where the highest concentrations of air pollutions are found. On the other end of the scale, we find Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Finland”, says research director and one of the main authors of the report, Cristina Guerreiro from NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

For Norway, the estimated number of attributable premature deaths due to PM2,5 pollution was 1400 in 2018. NO2 and ground-level ozone caused 40 and 90 premature deaths, respectively.

“If we compare with the numbers from 2009, we see that premature deaths due to NO2 has dropped significantly, from 390 to 40. This is mainly due to a substantial emission reduction in the supply and road transport sectors. The introduction of electrical vehicles has also contributed,” says Guerreiro.

Premature deaths due to PM2.5 was reduced from 1700 to 1400 in the same ten-year period, but for ground-level ozone the numbers rose from 60 to 90.

“Higher temperatures lead to higher ozone formation in the atmosphere. Thus, a warmer climate leads to higher ozone concentrations and associated health impacts. The late spring and summer of 2018 were much warmer than normal in the Nordic countries, leading to higher ozone levels,” explains scientist and co-author Joana Soares from NILU’s department of Environmental Impacts and Sustainability.

Better air quality is a health investment

EU, national and local policies, and emission cuts in key sectors have improved air quality across Europe, the EEA report shows. Since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and associated increase in the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Pollutant emissions from energy supply have also seen major reductions while progress in reducing emissions from buildings and agriculture has been slow.

Thanks to better air quality, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater as premature deaths have declined by about 54 % over the last decade. The continuing implementation of environmental and climate policies across Europe is a key factor behind the improvements.

“The EEA’s data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. Policies and actions that are consistent with Europe’s zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director.

The European Commission has recently published a roadmap for the EU Action Plan Towards a Zero Pollution Ambition, which is part of the European Green Deal.