Linking science, policy and the public

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Article Published 15 Apr 2013 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
Photo: © Tamas Parkanyi
The atmosphere, weather patterns and seasonal variations have long been an object of fascination and observation. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle’s treatise Meteorology compiled the great philosopher’s observations not only on the weather patterns, but on earth sciences in general. Until the 17th century, air symbolised ‘nothingness’. It was assumed that air had no weight until Galileo Galilei scientifically proved that it has.

Since the industrial revolution, human activity is more and more severely affecting the Earth’s ecosystem. One of its consequences is the air pollution.

Tamas Parkanyi, Hungary (ImaginAIR)

Today we have a much more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of our atmosphere. We can set up stations to monitor air quality, and within minutes we can see the chemical composition of the air at those locations and how these relate to long-term trends. We also have a much clearer overview of the sources of air pollution affecting Europe. We can estimate the amount of pollutants released to the air by individual industrial facilities. We can predict and monitor air movements and offer immediate and free access to this information. Our understanding of the atmosphere and its chemical interactions has certainly come a long way since Aristotle.

The atmosphere is complex and dynamic. Air moves around the world and so do the pollutants the air contains. Emissions from car exhausts in urban areas; forest fires; ammonia emitted by agriculture; coal-fired power plants across the planet; and even volcano eruptions affect the quality of the air we breathe. In some cases, the pollutant sources are located thousands of kilometers away from where the damage occurs.

We also know that poor air quality can have a dramatic effect on our health and well-being as well as on the environment. Air pollution can trigger and aggravate respiratory diseases; it can damage forests, acidify soils and waters, reduce crop yields and corrode buildings. We can also see that many air pollutants contribute to climate change and that climate change itself is going to affect air quality in the future.


(c) Gülçin Karadeniz

Policies have improved air quality but…

As a result of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence, demands by the public and a series of legislation, Europe’s air quality has improved considerably in the last 60 years. The concentrations of many air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene, have decreased significantly. Lead concentrations have dropped sharply below the limits set by legislation.
But despite such achievements, Europe has not yet attained the air quality foreseen in its legislation or desired by its citizens. Particulate matter and ozone are today the two most important pollutants in Europe, posing serious risks to human health and the environment.

Current laws and air quality measures target specific sectors, processes, fuels and pollutants. Some of these laws and measures put limits on the amount of pollutants that countries are allowed to release into the atmosphere. Other measures aim to reduce the population’s exposure to unhealthy levels of pollutants by limiting high concentrations — the amount of a certain pollutant in the air at a given location at a given time.

A considerable number of EU countries fail to achieve their emission targets for one or more air pollutants (nitrogen oxides in particular) covered by legislation. Concentrations are also a challenge. Many urban areas struggle with levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone higher than the thresholds set in legislation.

Further improvements are needed

Recent opinion polls show that the European public is clearly concerned about air quality. Almost one out of five Europeans says that they suffer from respiratory problems, not all necessarily linked to poor air quality. Four out five think that the EU should propose additional measures to address air-quality problems in Europe.

And three out of five do not feel informed about air quality issues in their country. In fact, despite significant improvements in recent decades, only less than 20 % of Europeans think air quality in Europe has improved. More than half of Europeans actually think that air quality has deteriorated in the last 10 years.

Communicating air-quality issues is essential. It might not only enhance our understanding of the state of Europe’s air today but also help reduce the impacts of exposure to high levels of air pollution. For some people who have family members suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, knowing the air pollution levels in their city or having access to accurate and timely information could be among their top daily priorities.

People on the street

(c) Valerie Potapova | Shutterstock

The potential benefits of action are significant

This year, the European Union will start outlining its future air policy. This is not an easy task. On the one hand, it requires minimising the impacts of air pollution on public health and on the environment. The cost estimates of these impacts are strikingly large.

On the other hand, there is no easy and quick fix to improve Europe’s air quality. It requires tackling many different pollutants from different sources over the long term. It also requires a more structural shift in our economy towards greener consumption and production patterns.

Improving the implementation of air legislation presents another opportunity to improve air quality. In many cases, local and regional authorities are the ones putting policies into action and dealing with the day-to-day challenges that result from poor air quality. They are often the public authority closest to the people affected by air pollution. Among them, local authorities have a wealth of information and concrete solutions for dealing with air pollution in their area. Bringing these local authorities together to share their challenges, ideas and solutions is critically important. It will give them new tools to achieve objectives set in legislation, better inform their citizens, and ultimately reduce health impacts from air pollution.

We now face the challenge of how to continue translating our growing understanding of the air into better policy and health outcomes. What are the actions we can take to reduce air pollution’s impact on our health and the environment? What are the best options available? And how do we get there?

It is exactly at moments like these that the scientist, the policymaker and the citizen need to work hand-in-hand to address these questions, so that we can continue to improve air quality in Europe.

Science shows that even very small improvements in air quality — particularly in highly populated areas — result in health gains as well as economic savings. These benefits include: higher quality of life for citizens who suffer less from pollution-related diseases; higher productivity due to fewer sick days; and lower medical costs for society.

Science also tells us that taking action on air pollution can have multiple benefits. For example, some greenhouse gases are also common air pollutants. Ensuring that climate and air policies are mutually beneficial can help combat climate change and improve air quality at the same time.

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade
Executive Director


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Filed under: air quality, air pollution
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