Most European city dwellers are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. Improving air quality to match World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended levels could prevent more than half of premature deaths caused by exposure to fine particulate matter.

Air pollution emissions have declined in the last two decades, resulting in better air quality. Despite this improvement, air pollution remains the largest environmental health risk in Europe. Exposure to fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide levels above the World Health Organization recommendations cause an estimated 253,000  and 52,000 premature deaths, respectively, in 2021. These pollutants are linked to asthma, heart disease and stroke.

Air pollution also causes morbidity. People live with diseases related to exposure to air pollution; this is a burden in terms of personal suffering as well as significant costs to the healthcare sector.

Society’s most vulnerable are more susceptible to air pollution impacts. Lower socio-economic groups tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution, while older people, children and those with pre-existing health conditions are more susceptible. Over 1,200 deaths in people under 18 years of age are estimated to be caused by air pollution every year in EEA member and collaborating countries.

Besides health issues, air pollution can considerably impact Europe’s economy due to increased healthcare costs, reduced life expectancy, and lost working days across sectors. It also damages vegetation and ecosystems, water and soil quality, and local ecosystems.  

Across the EU, it is common to have air pollution levels that are higher than the latest WHO recommendations. Still, there are signs of improvement.

  • In 2021, 97% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter above the health-based guideline level set by the World Health Organization.
  • Over 1,200 deaths in people under 18 years of age are estimated to be caused by air pollution every year in EEA member and collaborating countries[1] .
  • Data from 2021 show that Central-eastern Europe and Italy reported the highest concentrations of particulate matter, primarily due to the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and their use in industry.
  • All EU countries reported levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide above the health-based guideline levels set by the World Health Organization.
  • Overall, 97% of the EU’s urban population was exposed to levels of fine particulate matter above the latest guidelines set by WHO in 2021.

Since the 1980s, the EU has adopted strict policies on air quality. The EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives set air quality standards for 12 air pollutants. These directives also define common methods to monitor, assess and inform the public on ambient air quality in the EU. The European Commission has proposed an updated Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, with a key goal being to bring EU standards closer to recommendations from the WHO.

To see where we are in relation to these goals, a network of more than 4,000 air quality monitoring stations creates reliable, objective, comparable information on air quality. When levels are above the limit or target values, Member States are expected to prepare an air quality plan or programme that addresses responsible sources and ensures compliance.

The Zero Pollution Action Plan also sets the 2030 target of improving air quality, with a focus on PM2.5, in order to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution in the EU by a minimum of 55%, relative to those in 2005.

The National Emission reduction Commitments Directive sets national emission reduction commitments for Member States and the EU for five important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These pollutants contribute to poor air quality, leading to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.

The EEA supports these policies through data, indicators and assessments, including the annual air quality report and the zero pollution monitoring assessment.

Premature deaths in Europe in 2021

253,000

from chronic exposure to fine particulate matter

52,000

from chronic nitrogen dioxide exposure

22,000

from acute ozone exposure

Reducing emissions of air pollutants in Europe

Europe has put in place legislation to reduce emissions from harmful air pollutants. The National Emission reduction Commitments Directive (NECD) sets national emission reduction commitments for Member States and the EU for five important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These pollutants contribute to poor air quality, leading to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.

Every year, the EEA publishes the most recent reported data and a briefing on the EU Member States' progress in meeting their emission reduction commitments.

In 2021, 13 Member States met their respective 2020-2029 national emission reduction commitments for each of the five main pollutants, while 13 Member States failed to do so for at least one of the five main air pollutants. For one Member State, the status is unknown because its national inventory was not reported.

The biggest challenge for the period 2020-2029 is reducing ammonia emissions: 10 Member States need to cut their 2021 emission levels to fulfil their 2020-2029 reduction commitments. The agriculture sector is the principal source, responsible for 93% of total ammonia emissions. Since 2005, ammonia emissions have only slightly decreased in many Member States and in some cases have increased.

Picture from a cement wall with an industrial plant and funnel emitting smoke in the background and a sign reading SOS at the bottom right.
Image of the map of Europe with coloured indicators of air quality in the EU member states.

Check air quality at any time: European Air Quality Index & App

How clean is the air you’re breathing right now?

The European Air Quality Index provides information on the current air quality situation based on measurements from more than 2000 air quality monitoring stations across Europe.

The Index allows citizens to use an interactive map to check the air quality at station level, based on five key pollutants that harm people's health and the environment: namely particulate matter (both PM2.5 and PM10), ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

The index is also available as an app for mobile phones in all EU languages.

Air quality in your city: how clean is it compared to other European cities?

The costs to health and the environment from industrial air pollution

Air pollution from large European industry continues to cause significant damage to the environment, climate and people’s health.

The analysis shows that just a small fraction of the most polluting facilities — many of them coal power plants — causes half of the total damage.

However, the EEA analysis also shows that environmental and health costs of European industry have decreased by a third (-33%) from 2012 to 2021. The EU energy sector has accounted for the vast majority — about 80% — of the total decrease.

More information