Air quality remains a hot topic for many Europeans

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Article Published 15 Dec 2016 Last modified 16 Feb 2017
Last month the European Environment Agency (EEA) released its latest ‘Air quality in Europe’ report which showed that while air quality is slowly improving, air pollution remains the single largest environmental health hazard in Europe. We sat down with Alberto González Ortiz, an EEA air quality expert, to discuss the report’s findings and how technologies like satellite imagery are helping to improve air quality research.

© Simeon Lazarov, Environment & Me /EEA

What were the key findings of the 2016 report?

This year’s report highlights the fact that concentrations of air pollution across Europe continue to slowly improve. However, we are still seeing significant effects on health. Air pollution continues to result in a lower quality of life due to illnesses. Our updated report also provides a new estimate of the health impacts of the most harmful air pollutants like PM2.5 which was responsible for estimated 467,000 premature deaths per year in 2013 across 41 European countries.

The health hazards of air pollution are well known, thanks to organisations like the World Health Organization, and people across Europe are increasingly aware that the problem is a serious one. We are exposed to it every day. You don’t see it but you can really feel it when air pollution levels are high.

What about road transport and air pollution in cities?

The report highlights the impact of road transport on air pollution, which has been in the news recently in connection with several European cities, including Paris and London.

Road transport is the main emitter of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is one of the main pollutants harming health. This pollutant is also a precursor of ozone and particulate matter that can form in the air. Transport is also an important source of primary particulate matter, not only due to fuel combustion, but also by the wear of tyres and brakes, and last but not least, transport is a very important source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Road transport also takes up a large part of our public spaces, take traffic congestion for example. It causes noise as well. So, it’s a multidimensional problem.

Of course, no one questions the important role transport and mobility play in our everyday lives, but getting around can be made more sustainable. We are seeing that many cities are already taking action across Europe, trying to set up more sustainable mobility systems. Measures like congestion charges are short-term remedies, so we have to consider longer-term fundamental and innovative changes to our transport system to improve our overall well-being.

The reports also draws attention to emissions from residential and commercial buildings. How big of a problem are they?

As far as wood stoves and fireplaces are concerned, it’s a bigger problem than people might think, particularly in winter time. Many people, especially in eastern and northern Europe, light their fireplaces or wood stoves, which emit a lot of PM2.5. Fuel combustion of all types for heating households, commercial and other institutional buildings is actually the largest emitter of PM2.5. The entire sector emits more than half of the total PM2.5 at the European level.

Another problem in winter can be that in calm weather conditions, most of these emissions tend to hang and stay close to the ground because of thermal inversion. Under these conditions colder air stays in the lower layers of the atmosphere. Colder air, which is thicker, prevents the mixing and dispersion of emissions upwards in the atmosphere, so the pollution stays close to the ground.

What is the EEA doing to improve air quality in Europe?

One of the main contributions of the EEA is to provide the knowledge and the data required to help policy makers make better informed decisions on air quality. And our work also helps to raise public awareness of the problem, which is equally important.

We collect official data on air pollution from European countries, which we then use to make our regular air quality assessments via reports and indicators. We also share our air pollution data with many other stakeholders including the general public, national or regional authorities and the EU’s Copernicus satellite programme. And we participate regularly in seminars, conferences and meetings across Europe and internationally to share and discuss the issue and our findings, which help to spur action by policy makers. Air pollution is linked to a wide range of policy areas, so one of our priorities is to promote integrated cross-sectoral policies and measures.

Are any new technologies used to improve the monitoring of air pollution?

The vast majority of our data is collected through fixed air quality monitoring stations, which are operated by national and local authorities in our member countries. However, we are now seeing the use of other technologies as well, such as data collection by the use of satellites under the EU’s Copernicus programme. This is fairly new. The EEA works with Copernicus atmospheric services, and in the EEA air quality team, we also use some of this data in our work. By combining the information from satellites with modelling, we can get a better spatial distribution of pollutant concentrations. So instead of getting data at certain intervals from only certain measuring stations, we can get a much wider picture. But it’s essential to confirm model results with real-life observations, and this is where the EEA’s data received from countries across Europe is imperative.

We are also starting to see grass-roots, citizen-driven monitoring of air pollution with the use of sensors. It is a new source of information, but the accuracy of these devices still needs to be improved. They are not totally reliable yet, but it’s an emerging technology and it’s a great way of raising public awareness and community participation in addressing air pollution problems. At some point, this technology might become a good complementary source of information as well.

 Alberto GONZÁLEZ ORTIZ

Alberto González Ortiz

The interview published in the EEA Newsletter 04/2016, December 2016

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