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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 O 3 and 10% to PM 10  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.

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Heavy metal emissions in Europe

Heavy metals accumulate in ecosystems and damage human health. In line with the EU’s commitments under the Air Convention, specific legislation led to reductions in emissions of heavy metals across Europe from 1990 levels. Between 2005 and 2019, emissions have continued to decline, with lead emissions decreasing by 44%, mercury emissions by 45% and cadmium emissions by 33% across the EU-27 Member States. In 2019, Germany, Italy and Poland contributed most to heavy metal emissions in the EU.

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Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe

The air pollutants ammonia (NH 3 ), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), nitrogen oxides (NO X ), fine particulate matter (PM) and sulphur oxides (SO X ) damage human health and the environment, so reducing their emissions is a priority of both EU and international air quality legislation. Since 2005, emissions of all five pollutants have declined and, by 2012, the emission ceilings set for NH 3 , NMVOCs, NO X and SO X  had been met. However, based on progress so far, it is clear that more effort, particularly in the transport, energy and agriculture sectors, is essential if the EU is to fulfil longer term reduction commitments.

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Industrial pollutant releases to air in Europe

Industrial releases of air pollutants that are damaging to human health and the environment decreased between 2010 and 2019 in Europe, with emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g. CO 2 and sulphur oxides) and other pollutants (e.g. nitrogen oxides, dust and heavy metals) all declining significantly. The value that industry generated for the European economy during this period increased, however, in line with the goal of the EU industrial strategy: to support the competitiveness of European industry while driving a reduction in emissions, the use of natural resources and the production of waste.

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Emissions and energy use in large combustion plants in Europe

Between 2004 and 2019, emissions from large combustion plants in the EU decreased: SO 2 by 89%, nitrogen oxides by 60% and dust by 88%. Declines in emissions and improvements in environmental performance were largely driven by European policy, which sets legally binding emission limit values. The amount of fossil fuels used decreased by 23%, as energy production shifts to climate-friendly sources. Stricter emission limit values and policies aimed at increasing the use of renewable or cleaner fuels are expected to drive further declines in combustion plant emissions in coming years.

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Exposure of Europe's ecosystems to ozone

Ground-level ozone adversely affects not only human health but also vegetation and ecosystems across Europe, leading to decreased crop yields and forest growth, and loss of biodiversity. Much of Europe’s lands are exposed to ozone levels above the threshold and long-term objective values set in the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) for the protection of vegetation. For instance, after a 6-year period (2009-2014) of relatively low ozone values, the fraction of arable land exposed to levels above the AAQD threshold increased to 30 % in 2015, falling to 19 % in 2016, before increasing again to 26 % in 2017 and 45 % in 2018.  

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Persistent organic pollutant emissions

Since 1990, emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) decreased in the EEA-33 countries, e.g. hexachlorobenzene (HCB) decreased by 95 %, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by 75 %, dioxins and furans by around 70 % and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) by 83 %. The majority of countries report that POP emissions fell during the period 1990 to 2017. In 2017, the most significant sources of emissions included the ‘Commercial, institutional and households’  and ‘Industrial processes and product use’ sectors.

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