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Web report

Europe’s air quality status 2021- update

Briefing Published 07 Dec 2021 Last modified 30 Mar 2022
11 min read
Photo: © Tamas Parkanyi, ImaginAIR /EEA
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Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, causing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, that, in the most serious cases, lead to premature deaths. This chapter gives the status of concentrations of pollutants in ambient air in 2019 and 2020 presented by pollutant, as relates to both EU air quality standards and WHO guideline levels. The assessment shows that, in spite of improvements in air quality in recent years, exceedances of standards are still common across the EU.

Key messages

  • Despite improvements, air pollution is still a major health concern for Europeans. Where you live, has an impact on the risks to which you are exposed
        • People in bigger cities tend to be exposed to higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide because of emissions from traffic
        • In central and eastern Europe, the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and their use in industry results in the highest concentrations of particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene (a carcinogen)
        • People in southern Europe are exposed to the highest concentrations of ozone, the formation of which is driven by sunlight
  • In the European Union, 97% of the urban population is exposed to levels of fine particulate matter above the latest guideline levels set by the World Health Organization. 
  • An apparent improvement in air quality in 2020 is likely explained by weather patterns and the impact of lockdown measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Europe’s air quality status 2021 is part of the Air quality in Europe 2021 report. 

This chapter assesses levels of air pollutants in ambient air across Europe and compares them against both European Union (EU) standards as set out in the ambient air quality directives and the new World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelinesThe EU air quality standards are less strict for all pollutants than the new health-based air quality guidelines that were published by the WHO in 2021.


In 2019, the majority of the urban population in the EU was exposed to levels of key air pollutants that damage health (see Figure 1). In particular, 97% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the new WHO guideline level of 5 µg/m3.

Figure 1. Share of the EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU standards and WHO guidelines in 2019


Air quality new WHO guidelines

   

This analysis highlights those pollutants deemed to be most harmful to human health and the environment or that exceed the maximum EU air quality standards and WHO guideline levels most frequently. The data were extracted from the EEA’s reporting system on 27 April 2021.

The analysis of 2019 validated data includes maps and boxplots, while the analysis of provisional 2020 up-to-date (UTD) data includes only maps. 2020 validated data will be available later this year and presented in the 2022 air quality report.

The lists of countries that submitted data for 2019 and for 2020, additional information and further analysis can be found in the Eionet status reports ETC/ATNI 2021/7 and ETC/ATNI 2021/8, prepared by the European Topic Centre on Air Pollution, Transport, Noise and Industrial Pollution. This chapter updates a previous analysis to reflect the 2021 WHO air quality guidelines

Navigate the tabs for information on each pollutant: 

 

  • PM10
  • PM2.5
  • Ozone
  • NO2
  • BaP
  • Other pollutants

PM10 are particulate matter with a diameter of 10 µm or less. They are emitted mainly by the combustion of fuels for domestic heating, while industrial activities, agriculture and road transport are also important sources. Some come also from natural sources such as sea salt or Saharan dust and, finally, some are formed in the atmosphere from the combination of different gases.

Although exceedances of the EU daily limit value are widespread across the continent, the highest concentrations were found in some countries in central and eastern Europe and in northern Italy. In most countries of central and  eastern Europe, solid fuels such as coal are widely used for heating households and in some industrial facilities and power plants. The Po Valley, in northern Italy, is a densely populated and industrialised area with specific meteorological conditions that favour the accumulation of air pollutants in the atmosphere.

Figure 2. Concentrations of PM10 in 2019 and 2020 in relation to the EU daily limit value

 

Concentrations of PM10 in 2019: 

  • 21 reporting countries, of which 16 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU daily limit value of 50 µg/m3
  • 11 reporting countries, of which 7 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 40 µg/m3
  • All the reporting countries registered concentrations above the stricter WHO guideline of 15 µg/m3

Figure 3: Percentage of reporting stations registering PM10 concentrations above the EU daily limit value and the WHO long-term guideline in 2019 and 2020

Concentrations above the EU daily limit value were measured at 14% of reporting stations, 87% of which were urban and 10% suburban.

Figure 4. PM10 concentrations in 2019 by country in relation to the EU daily limit value

 

Concentrations of PM10 in 2020: 

  • 10 reporting countriesof which 8 were EU Member States, reported concentrations above the daily limit value
  • 4 reporting countriesof which 2 were EU Member States, reported concentrations above the annual limit value
  • All the reporting countries, except Iceland, reported concentrations above the WHO AQG

PM2.5 are particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less. They are emitted mainly by the combustion of fuels for domestic heating, industrial activities, and road transport. As with PM10, they can also come from natural sources and can be formed in the atmosphere. Agricultural emissions of ammonia make a significant contribution to the formation of particulate matter in the atmosphere.

The highest concentrations were found in central and eastern Europe and northern Italy. As for PM10, the use of solid fuels is the main reason for the situation in central and eastern Europe, together with an older vehicle fleet. In northern Italy, the high concentrations are due to the combination of a high density of anthropogenic emissions and meteorological conditions that favour the accumulation of air pollutants in the atmosphere.

Figure 5. Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2019 and 2020 in relation to the EU annual limit value

Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2019:

  • 7 reporting countries, of which 4 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 25 µg/m3
  • All the reporting countries, except Estonia, registered concentrations above the long-term WHO AQG of 5 µg/m3

Figure 6: Percentage of reporting stations registering PM2.5 concentrations above the EU annual limit value and the WHO long-term guideline in 2019 and 2020

Concentrations of PM2.5  above the EU annual limit value were registered at 2% of reporting stations, 77% of which were urban and 13% suburban. Concentrations above the WHO AQG for PM2.5 were registered across all reporting countries, except Estonia.  

Despite the generally decreasing levels of PM2.5, some Member States had not yet met the exposure concentration obligation that was set under the Ambient Air Quality Directive to be attained as of 2015. 

Figure 7: PM2.5 concentrations in 2019 by country in relation to the EU annual limit value

Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2020:

  • 4 reporting countries, of which 2 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value
  • All 27 reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO AQG 

Ozone (O3) is a pollutant formed in the atmosphere when heat and light cause chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including methane. Emissions of these gases are anthropogenic and, in the case of VOCs, also biogenic. Ozone also enters Europe from other parts of the northern hemisphere and from the upper atmosphere. Meteorology plays an important role in the formation and interannual variation of air pollutant concentrations, and this effect is especially significant for ozone.

Figure 8. Concentrations of O3 in 2019 and 2020 in relation to the EU target value

Note: Data are presented here for 1 year only, not the average over a 3-year period as stated in the definition of the EU target value for O3.

The highest concentrations were found in southern parts of Europe during spring and summer, when the meteorological conditions favour ozone formation.

 

Concentrations of O3 in 2019: 

  • 24 reporting countries, of which 19 were EU Member States, registered levels above the EU target value for the protection of human health

Figure 9: Percentage of reporting stations registering O3 concentrations above the EU target value and the WHO guideline in 2019 and 2020

The long-term EU objective for ozone of 120 µg/m3 was met at only 12 % of monitoring stations in 2019, with all countries reporting stations with concentrations above the long-term objective.

Figure 10. O3 concentrations in 2019 by country in relation to the EU target value

Note: Data are presented here for 1 year only, not the average over a 3-year period as stated in the definition of the EU target value for O3

In both 2019 and 2020, all countries had stations with concentrations above the WHO AQG of 100 µg/m3, with the WHO AQG for ozone exceeded at 97% of reporting stations in both years.

Concentrations of O3 in 2020:

  • 19 reporting countries, of which 17 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU target value for the protection of human health

In 2020, the long-term EU objective for ozone was met at 18% of stations. Andorra was the only country in which all reported concentrations were below the long-term objective.

The main source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is road transport, which emits NO2 close to the ground and mostly in densely populated areas, contributing to population exposure. Other important sources are combustion processes in industry and energy supply.

The highest concentrations were found across Europe in bigger cities with a high traffic volume. The impact of the COVID-19 related lockdown measures during the reporting period is clearly seen for this air pollutant, as its main source — road transport — was also one of the most reduced activities.

Figure 11: Concentrations of NO2 in 2019 and 2020 in relation to the EU annual limit value

 

Concentrations of NO2 in 2019:

  • 22 reporting countries, of which 18 were EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 40 µg/m3
  • All the reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO AGQ of 10 µg/m3

Figure 12. Percentage of reporting stations registering NO2 concentrations above the EU annual limit value and the WHO guideline in 2019 and 2020

 

Concentrations of NO2 above the EU annual limit value were registered at 6% of all reporting stations, 87% of which were traffic stations.

Figure 13. NO2 concentrations in 2019 by country and in relation to the EU annual limit value

Concentrations of NO2 in 2020

  • 9 reporting countries, including 8 EU Member States and the United Kingdom, registered values above the annual limit value

  • All the 33 reporting countries, except Malta, registered values above the WHO AQG

Concentrations of NO2 above the annual limit value were registered at 1% of reporting stations, 89% of which were traffic stations.

Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) is a carcinogenic pollutant emitted mainly from the combustion of coal and wood and, to a lesser extent, from the combustion of agricultural waste.

The highest concentrations were found in central and eastern Europe, where the use of coal and other solid fuels for residential heating is widespread.

Figure 14: Concentrations of BaP in 2019

Concentrations of Benzo[a]pyrene in 2019:

  • 14 reporting countries, all of which were EU Member States, registered values above 1.0 ng/m3

Concentrations above 1.0 ng/m3 were registered at 27% of the stations, of which 94% were urban (77%) or suburban (17%).

Figure 15: BaP concentrations in 2019 by country

Concentrations of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in 2019:

  • 6 reporting countries registered levels above the EU daily limit value

  • 17 reporting countries (at 7% of the reporting stations) registered values above the daily WHO AQG (4)

In 2020 concentrations of SO2 above the EU daily limit value were registered in two countries. In the same year, concentrations above the daily WHO AQG (4) were registered in 11 reporting countries, at 4% of the reporting stations.

(4) The 99.18th percentile of the daily values has been considered, 3 exceedance days per year.

 

Concentrations above EU target/limit values, were registered in 2019 for the following:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO): in three out of 36 reporting countries

  • Benzene (C6H6): in two out of 31 reporting countries

  • Arsenic (As): in three out of 28 reporting countries

  • Cadmium (Cd): in one out of 28 reporting countries

  • Nickel (Ni): in three out of 28 reporting countries

  • Lead (Pb): in one out of 28 reporting countries

 

The apparent improvement in the situation in 2020, with lower concentrations of PM10, PM2.5 and NO2, is partly due to the lockdown measures implemented during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures resulted in a reduction of many activities (such as road transport, aviation, shipping, some industries), while some others remained more or less unchanged (such as agriculture) or might have increased such as household energy consumption.

 

Where do the data come from?

The concentrations are obtained from measurements in monitoring stations that are officially reported to the EEA by its member countries. The classification of the monitoring stations and the criteria used to determine their inclusion in the analyses are described here. The countries that submitted data are summarised in Table 1 for 2019, and Table 2 for 2020.

The analysis for 2019 is based on validated data that are verified by the countries. The analysis for 2020 is based on provisional data reported in near-real time throughout the year. The analysis for 2020 is, therefore, provisional, and may change once the set of fully validated data is received by the EEA and more countries are considered.

Further information on the concentrations of air pollutants, including those for previous years, can be found at the EEA's statistics viewer. The data can also be downloaded here.

Note 1: The assessment of air quality against guidelines established by the World Health Organization is made against the concentration levels set out in the Air Quality Guidelines - 2021 Global Update 

Note 2: The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union did not affect the production of this assessment. Data for the United Kingdom appear here in agreement with the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, which entered into force on 1 February 2020. Data reported by the United Kingdom are included in all analyses and assessments contained herein, unless otherwise indicated.  

Chapters of the Air quality in Europe 2021 report:

                                                                               

Back to main page of the report     

How clean is the air you are breathing? Check the Air quality index for desktop, here.  

Download the Air quality index app, by scanning the QR code with your phone. 

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