Stronger measures needed to tackle harm from air pollution

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News Published 23 Nov 2016 Last modified 26 Apr 2018
4 min read
Air pollution has significant impacts on the health of Europeans, particularly in urban areas, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). While air quality is slowly improving, air pollution remains the single largest environmental health hazard in Europe, resulting in a lower quality of life due to illnesses and an estimated 467 000 premature deaths per year.

 Image © Lilla Lakatos, My City/EEA

Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment. We need to tackle the root causes of air pollution, which calls for a fundamental and innovative transformation of our mobility, energy and food systems.  

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

The EEA report ‘Air quality in Europe — 2016 report presents an updated overview and analysis of air quality in Europe from 2000 to 2014 based on data from official monitoring stations across Europe, and including more than 400 cities. It shows that in 2014 around 85 % of the urban population in the EU were exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organization (WHO). Particulate matter can cause or aggravate cardiovascular diseases, asthma and lung cancer.

The report also provides new estimates(1) of the health impacts of the most harmful air pollutants based on 2013 data. Exposure to PM2.5 was responsible for about 467 000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2013. Within the European Union, premature deaths exceeded 430 000. The estimated impacts of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) exposure were around 71 000 and 17 000 premature deaths respectively in Europe.

“Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx. “We need to tackle the root causes of air pollution, which calls for a fundamental and innovative transformation of our mobility, energy and food systems. This process of change requires action from us all, including public authorities, businesses, citizens and research community.”

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, welcomed the report and added: “Today's  EEA report on air quality reminds us that we need to keep this subject high on the political agenda. The European Commission is doing so, and is committed to securing improvements in air quality. One way we can do that is to help different levels of government work better together. If a lot of air quality blackspots are in towns and cities then it is clear that local and regional governments play a central role in finding solutions. This week I hope that the European Parliament will vote positively on our reduction commitments in the new National Emission Ceilings Directive. This will provide direction for national and local actors." 

The report highlights that air quality has however improved over the years. The annual average PM10 has fallen in 75 % of monitored locations during the period 2000–2014. Similarly, PM2.5 concentrations, on average, have decreased between 2006 and 2014 for all station types (urban, traffic, background sites, etc.). Exposure to PM levels above WHO recommendations have also decreased over the years. 

Other key findings

  • In 2014, 16 % of the EU-28 urban population was exposed to PM10 levels above the EU daily limit value whereas 8 % was exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU target value. However, when compared to the stricter WHO Air Quality Guideline values set to protect human health, approximately 50 % and 85 % of city dwellers were exposed to PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations exceeding the WHO’s recommendations.
  • NO2 affects the respiratory system directly, but also contributes to the formation of PM and O3. In 2014, 7 % of the urban population in the EU-28 were exposed to NO2 concentrations above the identical WHO and EU standards, with 94 % of all exceedances occurring due to traffic.
  • PM2.5 emissions from coal and biomass combustion in households and from commercial and institutional buildings have not decreased to any significant degree. To lower emissions from these sectors, it is essential to fully implement measures, such as recent changes to the Eco-design Directive for household stoves, the Medium Combustion Plant Directive, and to provide public guidance on good household burning practices, etc.
  • Emissions of ammonia (NH3) from agriculture remain high and contribute especially to sustained PM levels and a number of high-PM episodes in Europe.
  • Air pollution continues to damage vegetation and ecosystems. In this context, the most harmful air pollutants are O3, NH3 and NOx

Revision of the National Emission Ceilings Directive

Following the political agreement reached with the Council in June of this year, the European Parliament formally votes this week on the revised National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive. Member States are subsequently also expected to confirm their agreement of the revised directive before the end of 2016. The legislative proposal will establish new national emission reduction commitments applicable from 2020 and 2030 for SO2, NOx, NMVOC, NH3, and PM2.5 which will help Member States in their efforts to improve air quality. 

(1) A number of variables, including population density and exposure, total mortality figures and demographic changes such as ageing are taken into account when calculating these estimates. They can vary from year to year.


  EU urban population exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants in 2012 -2014

Source: EEA, 2016


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Exposure of ecosystems to acidification, eutrophication and ozone In the EU-28, critical loads for acidification were exceeded in 7 % of the ecosystem area in 2010, down from 43 % in 1980 (and decreased to 7 % of the ecosystem area  across all EEA member countries). There are still some areas where the interim objective for reducing acidification, as defined in the EU's National Emission Ceilings Directive, has not been met.  The EU-28 ecosystem area in which the critical loads for eutrophication were exceeded peaked at 84 % in 1990 and decreased to 63 % in 2010 (55 % in the EEA member countries). The area in exceedance is projected to further decrease to 54 % in 2020 for the EU-28 (48 % in the EEA member countries), assuming current legislation is implemented. The magnitude of the exceedances is also projected to decline considerably in most areas, except for a few 'hot spot' areas in western France and the border areas between the Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in northern Italy. Looking forward, only 4 % of the EU-28 ecosystem area (3 % in EEA member countries) is projected to exceed acidification critical loads in 2020 if current legislation is fully implemented. The eutrophication reduction target set in the updated EU air pollution strategy proposed by the European Commission in late 2013, will be met by 2030 if it is assumed that all maximum technically feasible reduction measures are implemented, but it will not be met by current legislation. For ozone, most of Europe's vegetation and agricultural crops are exposed to ozone levels that exceed the long term objective specified in the EU's Air Quality Directive. A significant fraction is also exposed to levels above the target value threshold defined in the directive. During the past five years, the fractions of agricultural crops above the target value were the lowest since 1996. In 2013, the fraction decreased to around the 21 %, compared with a relative peak of 27 % in 2012 . The effect-related concentrations show large year-to-year variations. Over the period 1996-2013, exposure increased until 2006, after which it decreased. During the past five years, around two-thirds of the forest area was exposed to ozone concentrations above the critical level set by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe ( UNECE) for the protection of forests. 

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