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Indicator Assessment

Exceedance of air quality standards in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-34-en
  Also known as: CSI 004 , AIR 003
Created 14 Sep 2020 Published 06 Oct 2020 Last modified 06 Oct 2020
23 min read
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EU legislation has led to improvements in air quality, with the percentage of urban citizens exposed to pollutant levels above standards set to protect human health falling between 2000 and 2018. However, poor air quality remains a problem: in 2018, 34 % of citizens were exposed to O3 and 15 % to PM10 above EU limit values. This is mainly due to emissions from transport and buildings, but also from agriculture and industry. Without radical changes to mobility, energy and food systems and industry, it is unlikely that air quality targets will be met in the near future.

EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above selected EU air quality standards

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More than 70 % of EU citizens live in urban areas (Eurostat, 2016), where high population densities and economic activities cause high levels of air pollution. Such exposure is linked to adverse health effects, such as respiratory and heart problems, and cancer (WHO, 2014). Particulate matter (PM), O3, NO2 and SO2 are associated with serious health problems. The EU Air Quality Directive (EU, 2008) aims to protect health, vegetation and natural ecosystems by setting limit and target values for air pollutants (and long-term objectives for O3). The Clean Air Programme, published in 2013, aims to comply with this legislation by 2020 (EC, 2013).

For most pollutants, there is progress, with the percentage of people exposed to levels above EU standards decreasing since 2000. However, potentially harmful levels are still recorded in many areas. For instance, although substantially lower than the 42 % peak in 2003, in 2018, 15 % of urban citizens were still exposed to (PM10) above the EU limit value. Worryingly, this percentage increased in recent years.

Exposure to harmful levels of fine PM (PM2.5) and NO2 is less common, but 4 % of the urban population lived in zones exceeding the EU limit values for both pollutants in 2018. For SO2, the percentage exposed to levels above the limit value decreased between 2000 and 2018, to less than 0.1 %.

O3 is a secondary pollutant formed from other pollutants in the presence of solar light. Its levels are determined by emissions and climatic conditions. The proportion of the population exposed to O3 above EU target levels has fluctuated from a 55 % peak in 2003 to 7 % in 2014. Since this low value, however, Europe has seen the two warmest years on record — 2015 and 2018 — resulting in 30 % or more of the population being exposed to O3 above the target value.

As there are relatively few reported measurements of BaP and these were not considered to be homogeneous across Europe until 2008, the values are not presented in the Figure 1. Considering data reported after that year, the portion of the urban population exposed to concentrations above the BaP target value has shown little variation within the range of 15-20 % in 2016-2018.

The results for SO2 show that the portion of the urban population exposed to concentrations above the daily EU limit value decreased between 2000 and 2018 to less than 0.5 % in the last 5 years (with a maximum of 3 % in 2006). Therefore, these values are also not exhibited in the Figure 1.

Despite progress driven by EU policies to reduce emissions and protect citizens from pollutants (EU, 2008, 2016), addressing the causes of poor air quality remains a challenge. Given the widespread exceedance of EU limit and target values in urban areas, the EU is not on track to meet air quality standards by 2020. Substantial efforts in relation to agriculture and energy use for transport and in buildings are needed to improve air quality and advance EU progress towards meeting climate change policy objectives.

 

EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above WHO air quality guidelines

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The EU clean air programme (EC, 2013) also set the long-term objective of complying with WHO air quality guidelines, which are much stricter than the standards set by the EU Air Quality Directive and are based on what is considered necessary to ensure the protection of human health (WHO, 2006).

As there are relatively few reported measurements of BaP and these were not considered to be homogeneous across Europe until 2008, the values are not presented in the Figure 2. When considering the estimated 'reference level' for BaP, the portion of the population exposed is much higher (81-91 % in 2008-2015 and 75–90 % in 2016-2018) and almost constant over the period. 

The results for SO2 show that the portion of the urban population exposed to concentrations above daily WHO guideline, following a steady decrease from a maximum of 85 % in 2000, the urban population exposed reached a minimum of 21 % in 2015 (19–31 % in 2016-2018).Therefore, these values are also not exhibited in the Figure 2.

Overall, progress has been made, with the proportion of the EU urban population exposed to PM, NO2 and SO2 above WHO guideline values decreasing since 2000. However, the EU is a long way off reaching its goal of complete compliance with the WHO’s air quality guidelines. In 2018, 48 % of the EU urban population was estimated to be exposed to PM10 above the WHO guideline value, 74 % to PM2.5, 4 % to NO2 and 19 % to SO2. The situation is even worse for O3: the proportion of the population exposed to O3 above the WHO guideline value fluctuated between 94 % and 99 % in the period 2000-2018, with no decreasing trend over time.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator shows the fraction of the EU-28 urban population that is potentially exposed to ambient air concentrations of six key pollutants (PM2.5, PM10, O3, NO2, SO2 and BaP) that are in excess of the EU limit or target values (EU, 2004, 2008) set for the protection of human health, and to concentrations of these pollutants in excess of the WHO Guidelines (WHO, 2000, 2006).

The indicator is based on measurements of air pollutants as reported under the Air Quality Directives (EU, 2004, 2008) and the Decisions on the exchange of information (EU, 1997, 2011).

Units

Concentration:

  • micrograms (mg) of pollutant per cubic metre for PM2.5, PM10, O3, NO2 and SO2.
  • Nanograms (ng) of pollutant per cubic metre for BaP.

Urban population (POP): number of inhabitants in the 'core city' and, from 2016 on, 'greater city' of the Urban Audit cities represented by the urban stations taken into account in the calculations.

Percentage of the urban population.


 

Policy context and targets

Context description

No related policy context has been specified.

Targets

No related targets has been specified.

Related policy documents

  • A Clean Air Programme for Europe
    Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions - "A Clean Air Programme for Europe", COM(2013) 918 final
  • Directive (EU) 2016/2284, reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants
    The directive is amending Directive 2003/35/EC (providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment) and repealing Directive 2001/81/EC. It entered into force at the end of 2016 and aims at compliance with the 2012 amended Gothenburg Protocol. In July 2017, the EU ratified the 2012 amendments to the 1999 protocol.
  • Directive 2008/50/EC, air quality
    Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe.
 

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

Information on cities is obtained from the Urban Audit (UA) data (Eurostat, 2014). UA data collection, maintained by Eurostat, provides information and comparable measurements on the different aspects of the quality of urban life in selected European cities. The urban population considered is the total number of people represented by any of the urban monitoring stations in the 'core city' and, from 2016, the 'greater city' of the UA cities taking part in the calculations.

Initially, stations in the EEA air-quality database are spatially joined with UA core and, from 2016, greater cities in a geographical information system in order to select those stations that fall within the boundaries of the cities included in the UA collection. The selected stations include station types classified as 'urban traffic', 'suburban traffic', 'urban background' and 'suburban background'. Stations classified as 'industrial' are influenced by other local emissions and such environments are generally not representative for residential areas. The industrial stations are therefore not selected for the indicator calculations.

According to a study for the European Commission by Entec UK Limited (EC, 2006), in Europe, on average, 5 % of the city population lives closer than 100 metres from major roads and is therefore potentially exposed to concentrations measured at traffic stations. The remaining 95 % of the city population is assumed to be exposed to urban and suburban background concentrations.

These percentages vary from country to country. To calculate them, national data on the population living closer than 100 metres from major roads have been taken from Appendix D (EC, 2006). These data have been divided by the total population figures for 2001 according to the Eurostat census (Eurostat, 2014a).

For Croatia, Malta and the United Kingdom there are no data on the 2001 population in that census, so the data in the publication (EC, 2007) have been used. Furthermore, for Cyprus and Malta there are no data for people living close to roads in (EC, 2006), so for them, and also for Turkey, the average value of 5 % was used.

For PM10, PM2.5, O3, NO2 and SO2, only stations with at least 75 % of valid data per calendar year are used. That is, in the case of daily values, those having more than 274 valid daily values per calendar year (or 275 days in a leap year). And in the case of hourly values, having more than 6 570 valid hourly values per calendar year (or 6 588 hours in a leap year). For BaP, the minimum data time coverage accepted is 14 % (51 days), according to the data quality objectives related to indicative measurements in the Directive 2004/107/EU (EU, 2004).

For every year, each city (i) in country (j), and every pollutant, the total number of urban or suburban traffic stations (nit) and the total number of urban or suburban background stations (nib) are obtained. Ptj % of the total population of the city (Popi) is proportionally assigned to each of the traffic stations and Pbj % of Popi is proportionally assigned to each of the background stations. So, every traffic station has an allocated population equal to ((Ptj / 100) * Popi / nit) and every background station has an allocated population equal to ((Pbj /100) *Popi / nib).

No gap filling is applied in the air quality data in the EEA air quality database.

For countries with no information on cities and/or population in the Urban Audit data collection (Lichtenstein and Turkey), population data have been retrieved from http://www.citypopulation.de/. The gap filled mapping was done using the “station_city” attribute found in the EEA air quality database (AirBase) and compared with the city names found at http://www.citypopulation.de/. The London geometry was derived from the URAU2007 data set in the first two assessment versions.

Methodology for gap filling

No related methodology for gap filling has been specified.

Methodology references

 

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

No related methodology uncertainty has been specified.

Data sets uncertainty

No related data sets uncertainty has been specified.

Rationale uncertainty

No related rationale uncertainty has been specified.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 004
  • AIR 003
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year
EEA Contact Info info@eea.europa.eu

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Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage

Dates

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