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Briefing

Europe’s air quality status 2022

Briefing Published 01 Apr 2022 Last modified 23 Nov 2022
13 min read
Photo: © Tolu Olarewaju on Unsplash
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Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, causing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that lead to the loss of healthy years of life and, in the most serious cases, to premature deaths. This briefing presents the status of concentrations of pollutants in ambient air in 2020 and 2021 by pollutant, in relation to both EU air quality standards and the WHO guidelines, updated in 2021. The assessment shows that exceedances of air quality standards are common across the EU, with concentrations well above the latest WHO recommendations. Nevertheless, in 2020, lockdown measures adopted to minimise the spread of COVID-19 had a temporary impact on emissions of air pollution from road transport and led to improved air quality.

Key messages

  • In 2020, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) temporarily fell as a direct result of reductions in road transport during COVID-19 lockdowns. Reductions in NO2 annual mean concentrations of up to 25% were seen in major cities in France, Italy and Spain; during the first lockdown in April 2020, NO2 concentrations monitored at traffic stations fell by up to 70%
  • Despite these reductions and ongoing overall improvements in air quality, air pollution is still a major health concern for Europeans.
  • Central-eastern Europe and Italy reported the highest concentrations of particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene (a carcinogen), due primarily to the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and their use in industry.
  • Ozone levels were lower than in previous years, but still high in central Europe and some Mediterranean countries.
  • In the European Union, 96% of the urban population was exposed to levels of fine particulate matter above the latest health-based guideline set by the World Health Organization.
Europe’s air quality status 2022 is one of a series to be published by the EEA as part of the Air quality in Europe 2022 report.

This briefing 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 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) global air quality guidelines. For the 2020 analysis, these 2021 guidelines have been used as they represent the most up-to-date framework for assessing the impacts of air pollution on human health. The EU air quality standards are less strict for all pollutants than the WHO air quality guidelines.


Under the European Green Deal’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission set the 2030 goal of reducing the number of premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5, a key air pollutant), by at least 55% compared with 2005 levels. To this end, the European Commission initiated a revision of the ambient air quality directives, aiming, among other things, to align the air quality standards more closely with WHO recommendations. In parallel, stricter requirements are also foreseen to tackle air pollution at source, such as pollution from agriculture, industry, transport, buildings and energy supply.

In 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most European countries implemented lockdown measures to stop or minimise the spread of the disease. Those measures led to a reduction in activity in the road transport, aviation and international shipping sectors, which in turn led to falls in emissions of air pollutants. While some industrial sectors also reduced activity levels, the level of agricultural production stayed more or less steady. Emissions from domestic heating increased slightly as people stayed at home. The overall effect on concentrations varies by pollutant, with the most significant ones summarised below.

Despite reductions in emissions, in 2020 most of the EU’s urban population was exposed to levels of key air pollutants that are damaging to health (see Figure 1). In particular, 96% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above the 2021 WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3.

Figure 1. Share of the EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU standards and WHO guidelines in 2020

Figure 1 Share of the EU urban population

Source: AIR003

 

 

This analysis highlights those pollutants deemed to be most harmful to human health or that exceed the maximum EU air quality standards and WHO guidelines most frequently. 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 number of countries that submitted data varies for each pollutant and are summarised in Table 1  for 2020, and Table 2 for 2021. When referring to countries reporting data above certain levels, it means that they reported at least one station with concentrations above those levels.

The data were extracted from the EEA’s reporting system on 24 March 2022.

The analysis for 2020 is based on officially validated data reported by countries. The analysis for 2021 is based on provisional up-to-date (UTD) data, and may therefore be subject to change once the set of fully validated data is received by the EEA, and more countries are considered. Validated data for 2021 will only be available from countries later this year.

Additional information and further analysis can be found in the Eionet status reports ETC/HE 2022/2 and ETC/HE 2022/3, prepared by the European Topic Centre on Human health and the environment (ETC HE) .The analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown measures on air quality concentrations can be found in the Eionet report ETC/ATNI 2021/16, forthcoming. In this study, only stations with a minimum daily data capture of 75% for every year in the period 2015-2020 were included. Therefore, when referring to numbers and percentages of stations in this study in the rest of the briefing, it is this subset of stations that are considered.

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

 


Navigate the tabs for information on each pollutant: 

 

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

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

Exceedances of the EU daily limit value for PM10 are seen in Italy and some eastern European countries (Figure 2). In most central and eastern European countries, 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 and geographical conditions that favour the accumulation of air pollutants in the atmosphere.


Figure 2. Concentrations of PM10 in 2020 and 2021 in relation to the EU daily limit value

 

Concentrations of PM10 in 2020: 

  • 20 reporting countries, including 15 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU daily limit value of 50 µg/m3
  • 10 reporting countries, including 6 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 40 µg/m3
  • All 36 reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO daily guideline of 45 µg/m3
  • All reporting countries except Iceland registered concentrations above the WHO annual guideline of 15 µg/m3

Figure 3: Percentage of reporting monitoring stations registering PM10 concentrations above the EU limit values and the WHO guidelines in 2020 and 2021

Figure 3 PM10 concentrations

Concentrations of PM10 above the EU daily limit value were measured at 16% of monitoring stations, 84% of which were urban and 11% suburban.

The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown measures on the annual mean level of PM10 was limited, and no greater than a median reduction of 4% across all stations (ETC/ATNI, 2021/16, forthcoming). This may be because increased emissions from residential heating compensated for emission reductions in other sectors. While decreases in annual mean PM10 concentrations were measured predominantly at traffic stations, some other monitoring stations measured a clear increase. There was no clear geographical pattern across Europe. In fact, during April 2020, reductions of up to 35% were found at some traffic stations in Italy and Spain, although some background stations also showed an increase in their April 2020 concentrations (EEA, 2020).

Figure 4. PM10 concentrations in 2020 by country in relation to the EU daily limit value

 

Concentrations of PM10 in 2021: 

  • 16 reporting countries, including 12 EU Member States, reported concentrations above the daily limit value
  • 8 reporting countries, including 5 EU Member States, reported concentrations above the annual limit value
  • All 32 reporting countries reported concentrations above the WHO daily guideline
  • All reporting countries except Iceland reported concentrations above the WHO annual guideline

PM2.5 stands for particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less. These particles are emitted mainly from 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 PM2.5 concentrations were seen in northern Italy and some eastern European countries. 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 and geographical conditions that favour the accumulation of air pollutants in the atmosphere.

Figure 5. Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2020 and 2021 in relation to the EU annual limit value and the WHO annual guideline

Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2020:

  • 6 reporting countries, including 3 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 25 µg/m3
  • All 33 reporting countries, with the exception of Estonia, registered concentrations above the WHO annual guideline of 5 µg/m3
  • All reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO daily guideline of 15 µg/m3

Figure 6: Percentage of reporting monitoring stations registering PM2.5 concentrations above the EU annual limit value and the WHO guidelines in 2020 and 2021

Figure 6 PM25 concentrations

Concentrations of PM2.5 above the EU annual limit value were registered at 2% of monitoring stations, 69% of which were urban and 21% suburban.

The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown measures on the annual mean level of PM2.5 was limited, and no greater than a median reduction of 5% across all stations (ETC/ATNI, 2021/16, forthcoming). The average decrease in concentrations was greater at traffic monitoring stations than at urban and rural background stations. As for PM10, increased emissions from residential heating could have negated reductions in other sectors.

In 2020, all EU Member States met the exposure concentration obligation of 20 µg/m3, based on a 3-year average (2018-2020) measured at urban background stations, that was to be attained as of 2015 under the Ambient Air Quality Directive. In contrast, 5 Member States, (Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, and Romania) did not meet their national exposure reduction target, in relation to their Average Exposure Indicator for 2011 (for 2015 in the case of Croatia) level, set for 2020. This indicator assesses the long term exposure of the general population in urban areas.

Figure 7: PM2.5 concentrations in 2020 by country in relation to the EU annual limit value and the WHO annual guideline

Concentrations of PM2.5 in 2021:

  • 6 reporting countries, including 3 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value
  • All 30 reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO annual guideline
  • All reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO daily guideline

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 occur from anthropogenic sources and, in the case of VOCs, also biogenic. Ozone also is transported to Europe from other parts of the northern hemisphere and from the upper atmosphere. Meteorology plays an important role in the formation of air pollution and in interannual variation in concentrations, and this effect is especially significant for ozone.

Figure 8. Concentrations of O3 in 2020 and 2021 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 in 2020 were found in central parts of Europe, some Mediterranean countries and Portugal. Despite 2020 being the warmest year on record in Europe, ozone levels were lower than in previous years. Two factors may play a role here. Firstly, high temperatures were recorded in winter and autumn, when ozone formation is less intense (CAMS, 2022). Secondly, emissions of ozone precursors, in particular NO2, fell during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The decrease in ozone levels due to the COVID-19 lockdowns depends on the metrics used to measure ozone concentrations. For SOMO10[1], the median decrease was 5% across all stations, while for other health related metrics the decrease was lower (ETC/ATNI, 2021/16, forthcoming). Spain registered the biggest falls in ozone concentrations due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

 

Concentrations of O3 in 2020: 

  • 21 reporting countries, including 15 EU Member States, registered levels above the EU target value threshold of 120 µg/m3
  • All 34 reporting countries[2] registered levels above the WHO peak season guideline of 60 µg/m3
  • All 35 reporting countries registered levels above the WHO guideline of 100 µg/m3

Figure 9: Percentage of reporting monitoring stations registering O3 concentrations above the EU target value and the WHO guidelines in 2020 and 2021

Figure 9 03 concentrations

The long-term EU objective for ozone of 120 µg/m3 was met at 19% of monitoring stations in 2020, with all 35 reporting countries, except Andorra and Latvia, reporting stations with concentrations above the long-term objective.

Figure 10. O3 concentrations in 2020 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

Concentrations of O3 in 2021:

  • 20 reporting countries, including 16 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU target value threshold
  • All 33 reporting countries registered levels above the WHO peak season guideline
  • All 33 reporting countries registered levels above the WHO short-term guideline

In 2021, the long-term EU objective for ozone was met at 20% of monitoring stations, with all 33 reporting countries registering concentrations above the long-term objective.

The main source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is road transport, which emits NO2 close to the ground, 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 2020 is clearly seen for this air pollutant, as its main source — road transport — was significantly reduced. In the 10 EU Member States most affected by the first wave of lockdowns, the average reduction in annual mean concentrations of NO2 ranged from 10% to 19% (ETC/ATNI, 2021/16, forthcoming). In France, Italy and Spain, NO2 annual mean levels fell by as much as 25% in large cities and 17% in rural areas. These reductions, estimated throughout the whole year, are smaller than those seen in April 2020 during the first lockdown. In the countries where lockdown measures were stricter, monthly concentrations decreased by up to 70% at traffic stations (EEA, 2020).

Figure 11: Concentrations of NO2 in 2020 and 2021 in relation to the EU annual limit value and the WHO annual guideline

 

Concentrations of NO2 in 2020:

  • 8 reporting countries, including 7 EU Member States, registered concentrations above the EU annual limit value of 40 µg/m3
  • All 36 reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO annual guideline of 10 µg/m3
  • All reporting countries registered concentrations above the WHO daily guideline of 25 µg/m3

Figure 12. Percentage of reporting monitoring stations registering NO2 concentrations above the EU limit values and the WHO guidelines in 2020 and 2021

Figure 12 NO2 concentrations

Concentrations of NO2 above the EU annual limit value were registered at 2% of all monitoring stations, 69% of which were traffic stations.

Annual mean NO2 concentrations in 2020 were the lowest on record, with the fewest exceedances of the EU annual limit registered across Europe. NO2 concentrations at 11% of the traffic stations in (ETC/ATNI, 2021/16, forthcoming) fell from above the EU annual limit value, in a business-as-usual scenario, to below the EU annual limit value as a result of the COVID-19 measures.

Figure 13. NO2 concentrations in 2020 by country and in relation to the EU annual limit value and the WHO annual guideline

Concentrations of NO2 in 2021

  • 8 reporting countries, including 7 EU Member States, registered values above the annual limit value
  • All 35 reporting countries registered values above the WHO annual guideline
  • All reporting countries registered values above the WHO daily guideline

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

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

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

Figure 14: Concentrations of BaP in 2020

Concentrations of Benzo[a]pyrene in 2020:

  • 11 out of 27 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 reported monitoring stations, the majority of which were urban (79%) or suburban (15%).

Figure 15: BaP concentrations in 2020 by country

Concentrations of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in 2020:

  • 5 out of 36 reporting countries, including two EU Member States, registered levels above the EU daily limit value of 125 µg/m3

  • 16 countries registered values above the WHO daily guideline of 40 µg/m3 [3]

In 2020, concentrations above the EU daily limit value were registered at 1% of reporting monitoring stations.

In 2021, concentrations of SO2 above the EU daily limit value were registered in three out of 34 reporting countries, including two EU Member States. In the same year, concentrations above the WHO daily guideline were registered in 13 countries.

 

Concentrations above EU target/limit values, were registered in 2020 for the following:

  • Carbon monoxide in two stations located in two non-EU Member States, out of 34 reporting countries

  • Arsenic in seven stations located in three EU Member States, out of 27 reporting countries

  • Cadmium in one station located in one EU Member State, out of 28 reporting countries

  • Nickel in two stations located in two EU Member States, out of 27 reporting countries

 

None of the 27 countries that reported data had values above the EU limit value for lead.

None of the 29 countries that reported data had values above the EU limit value for benzene.

 

Notes

[1] The annual sums of daily maximum running 8-h average O3 concentrations above 10 ppb across a whole year.

[2] Romanian stations did not get the minimum data coverage to estimate the peak season concentrations.

[3] The 99.18th percentile of the daily values has been considered, 3 days of exceedance per year.

Identifiers

Briefing no. 04/2022
Title: Europe's air quality status 2022
EN HTML: TH-AM-22-004-EN-Q - ISBN: 978-92-9480-464-8 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/049755

Disclaimer

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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