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The European Commission zero pollution action plan sets a target to reduce the health impacts of air pollution (estimated by the number of premature deaths attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5)) by at least 55% by 2030, compared to those in 2005. Between 2005 and 2021, the number of premature deaths in the EU attributable to PM2.5 fell by 41%. Extrapolating the progress observed over the past ten years shows that the target will be overreached at the EU level. The European Commission also projected that the target will be overreached if the EU policies on air, climate and energy are adequately implemented. Despite the ongoing improvement, in 2021 the premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 were 253,000 in the EU.
Air pollution is a major cause of mortality and disease in Europe and is the largest environmental health risk (WHO, 2023). The air pollutant deemed to cause the most severe impacts on human health is fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
The European Green Deal called for a further improvement of air quality and to revise the EU’s air quality standards, aligning them more closely with the latest World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on air quality. The European Commission zero pollution action plan set the target of reducing the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55% before 2030, relative to those in 2005 (specifying that this target will be measured considering only PM2.5). In October 2022, the European Commission also proposed a revision of the current EU Ambient Air Quality Directives, under negotiation during 2023 with the European Parliament and the European Council.
As shown in Figure 1, between 2005 and 2021, premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 exposure above the WHO air quality guideline level of 5µg/m3 fell by 41% in the EU-27 (EEA, 2023). This decrease was caused by a decline in the concentrations of PM2.5 and therefore a decrease in the exposure of the population to this air pollutant. Nevertheless, more than 70% of EU population live in urban areas and, according to a related EEA indicator, in 2021 97% of the urban population was still exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the new (2021) WHO air quality guideline level of 5µg/m3.
The decline in the premature mortality was the result of the implementation of EU, national and local policies to improve the quality of the air (e.g. the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives and the national, regional and local plans and measures derived from them) and to reduce emissions of air pollutants, including particulate matter (e.g. the National Emission Reduction Commitments Directive). These policies succeeded in reducing fine particulate matter emissions from domestic heating, their main source, as well as from other sources such as transport, industry and agriculture.
If the trend seen in the past ten years was to continue, the decline in the premature mortality attributable to PM2.5 would reach 68% by 2030 (from 2005 levels), i.e., there will be an overachievement of the 55% zero pollution reduction target. In addition, according to the Third Clean Air Outlook, published by the European Commission, the target is expected to be overreached if the foreseen clean air measures, together with the climate and energy polices of the ‘Fit for 55’ package are implemented. The outlook foresees a reduction of 66% by 2030 if these conditions are met.
Although the Zero pollution action plan target is set at EU level, it is useful to have a look at the change in the mortality due to exposure to PM2.5 at country level. Figure 2 depicts the estimated number of premature deaths per 100,000 inhabitants attributable to exposure to annual PM2.5 concentrations above 5µg/m3 in both 2005 and 2021.
It shows that in all EU Member States, except Poland, mortality per capita has decreased, more than halving in 14 of them.
A decrease in mortality can also be seen in the rest of the European countries considered, with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. In these non-EU countries, five of them have at least halved their number of premature deaths attributable to exposure to PM2.5.
This reduction at country level partly reflects the reduction in PM2.5 concentrations over the years (see, for instance, the Air quality in Europe – 2020 report). The increasing results found in the three countries mentioned above happened in spite of the decreasing concentrations between 2005 and 2021. This may be due to an increase in total and/or relative mortality between the two years. Specifically, 2021 saw an increase in total mortality due to the impact of COVID-19.
Finally, to allow comparison of the impact of air pollution on human health across the different NUTS3 regions of Europe (NUTS: Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics), this map shows the number of premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 expressed per 100,000 inhabitants. Out of the EU regions, the highest relative number of attributable deaths in 2021 were in several regions of Bulgaria (Vidin, Plovdiv and others) and Poland (Miasto Kraków, Katowicki, Sosnowiecki and others). In contrast, within the EU, several Finnish and Swedish regions and one Portuguese region had very low attributable deaths (i.e., less than one per 100,000 inhabitants).
Outside of the EU, the highest number of relative attributable deaths in 2021 were in several regions of North Macedonia (Skopski, Vardarski and others) and of Serbia (Podunavska oblast, Pomoravska oblast, City of Belgrade and others). Regarding the lowest numbers, all the Icelandic regions and a couple of Norwegian regions had less than one attributable death per 100,000 inhabitants.
The high relative numbers of premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 in the above-mentioned regions are the result of burning solid fuels for domestic heating and industry. And all the regions (both inside and outside EU) with the lowest relative mortality have population-averaged concentrations below 5µg/m3.