Exceedance of air quality standards in Europe

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 2019. However, poor air quality remains a problem: in 2019, 21 % of citizens were exposed to O3 and 10 % to PM10 levels above EU standards. This is mainly because of 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.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Figure 1. Urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above selected EU air quality standards, EU-27 and the UK
YearPM2.5PM10O3NO2BaPSO2
200052.62525.8
200138.942.121
20024026.922.5
200346.963.931.9
200433.322.919.2
200540.628.320.1
200620.445.354.916
200713.733.226.119.8
200815.12618.411.3
200911.526.719.812.9
201013.327.921.39.6
201117.633.519.810.3
201213.82518.97.5
20138.721.517.49.4
20148.216.47.38.1
20157.222.729.48.4
20165.512.9127.1
20177.816.816.56.4
20183.814.834.23.5
201919.820.63.3

More than 70 % of EU citizens live in urban areas, 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. Particulate matter (PM), O3, NO2 and SO2 are associated with serious health problems. The EU Air Quality Directive 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 the time 2020 data are available.

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 47 % peak in 2003, in 2019, 10 % of urban citizens were still exposed to PM with a diameter of 10 µm or less (PM10) above the EU daily limit value.

Exposure to harmful levels of fine PM (PM2.5) and NO2 is less common, but 3 % of the urban population lived in zones exceeding the EU limit values for NO2 and only 1% in urban areas exceeding the EU limit values for PM2.5 in 2019. For SO2, the percentage exposed to levels above the limit value decreased between 2000 and 2019, to less than 0.1 % in the last 10 years (with a maximum of 3% in 2006). Therefore, these values are also not exhibited in Figure 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 64 % 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. However, in 2019, this ratio decreased to 21%.

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 14-17 % in 2017-2019.

Despite progress driven by EU policies to reduce emissions and protect citizens from pollutants, 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.

Figure 2. Urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above 2005 WHO air quality guidelines, EU-27 and the UK
YearPM2.5PM10O3NO2BaPSO2
200086.895.525.8
200183.29721
200280.899.722.5
200389.89531.9
200477.599.719.2
200581.797.920.1
200696.98499.816
200789.187.398.719.8
200885.378.198.311.3
200989.784.199.412.9
201089.883.998.99.6
201192.386.59710.3
201289.972.597.87.5
201386.362.1989.4
201486.550.395.98.1
201581.553.695.98.4
2016 74.642.1987.1
201777.34596.36.4
201873.548993.5
201960.935.898.33.3

The EU Clean Air Programme 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. The European Green Dealproposes to revise the EU air quality standards to align them more closely with the World Health Organization recommendations. The WHO published new air quality guidelines in 2021, nevertheless the analysis in this indicator considers still the 2005 version.

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 (84-91 % for 2008-2016 and 71-83 % for 2017-2019) and almost constant over the period. 

The results for SO2 show that the portion of the urban population exposed to concentrations above daily WHO guidelines – which decreased steadily from a maximum of 84 % in 2000 – reached a minimum of 10% in 2015  and remained within the range of 17-30% for the period 2017-2019. Therefore, these values are also not displayed in Figure 2.

Overall, progress has been made, with the proportion of the EU urban population exposed to PM, NO2 and SO2 above 2005 WHO guideline values decreasing since 2000. However, the EU is a long way from reaching its goal of complete compliance with the WHO’s air quality guidelines. In 2019, 36 % of the EU urban population was estimated to be exposed to PM10 above the WHO guideline value, 61% to PM2.5, 3% to NO2 and 17% to SO2. The situation is even worse for O3: the proportion of the population exposed to O3 above the 2005 WHO guideline value fluctuated between 95 % and 100 % in the period 2000-2019, with no decreasing trend over time.

For the urban population exposed to concentrations both above EU standards and 2005 WHO air quality guidelines at country level, please see the EEA data viewer.

Supporting information

Metadata

References and footnotes