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Europe’s urban population remains at risk due to health damaging levels of air pollution

Illustration: Colourbox

7 December, 2021: The vast majority of Europe’s urban population is exposed to levels of air pollutants above new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, according to an updated European Environment Agency (EEA) analysis on air quality in Europe.

  • In the 27 Member States of the European Union (EU), 97% of the urban population is exposed to levels of fine particulate matter above the WHO guideline. Levels of particulate matter are driven by emissions from energy use, road transport, industry and agriculture.
  • Regarding nitrogen dioxide, 94% of the urban population is exposed to levels above the WHO guideline, due predominantly to emissions from road transport.
  • 99% of the urban population is exposed to levels of ozone above the WHO guideline, linked to emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, including methane, and high temperatures which increase with climate change.

The EEA Air quality in Europe 2021 report updates and expands on an earlier assessment of the status of air quality by comparing pollutant concentrations in ambient air across Europe against the new WHO air quality guidelines published in September 2021. It finds that the majority of Europeans are exposed to levels of air pollutants known to damage health.

This year, the Air Quality in Europe report is launched as an online product for the first time, after 10 years of annual publications as a paper/PDF report.

“The report builds on several technical reports by the NILU coordinated European Topic Centre on Air Pollution, Transport, Noise and Industrial Pollution (ETC/ATNI), and a strong cooperation between the topic centre and the EEA experts”, explains Dr. Cristina Guerreiro, research director at NILU and one of the lead authors of the report.

Human activities to blame

The report finds that human activities are the key driver behind the dangerous levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Overall emissions of all key air pollutants across the EU declined in 2019, maintaining the trend seen since 2005. Nevertheless, delivering clean and safe air for Europe will require ongoing and additional reductions in emissions.

Looking ahead, the report says more action is required by all Member States if they are to meet future emission reduction commitments under the EU’s National Emissions reduction Commitments Directive (NEC Directive).

The EU has also set standards for key air pollutants in the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives. Under the European Green Deal’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission set the 2030 goal of reducing the number of premature deaths caused by PM2.5 by at least 55% compared with 2005 levels.

Will bring EU standards closer to WHO guidelines

To this end, the European Commission initiated a revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives, which includes a revision of EU air quality standards to align them more closely with WHO recommendations. Citizens and stakeholders are invited to express their views through a public consultation run by the European Commission until 16 December 2021.

In 2019, air pollution continued to drive a significant burden of premature death and disease in Europe. In the EU, 307,000 premature deaths were linked to exposure to fine particulate matter in 2019, a decrease of 33% on 2005.

ETC/ATNI and EEA have been working together to estimate mortality indicators such as premature deaths, which are crucial to conveying the EEA’s message on how air pollution affects European citizens’ wellbeing.

Dr. Joana Soares from NILU has been working together with EEA experts for standardizing the methodology. She has also collaborated in estimating the mortality related to air pollution and assessing the health benefit of attaining EU limit values and WHO guidelines for different air pollutants.