Air pollution — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 26 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
4 min read
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Emissions of air pollutants derive from almost all economic and societal activities. They result in clear risks to human health and ecosystems. In Europe, policies and actions at all levels have greatly reduced anthropogenic emissions and exposure but some air pollutants still harm human health. Similarly, as emissions of acidifying pollutants have reduced, the situation for Europe's rivers and lakes has improved but atmospheric nitrogen oversupply still threatens biodiversity in sensitive terrestrial and water ecosystems. The movement of atmospheric pollution between continents attracts increasing political attention. Greater international cooperation, also focusing on links between climate and air pollution policies, is required more than ever to address air pollution.


Emissions are declining but air quality still needs to improve

Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe have declined significantly in recent decades, greatly reducing exposure to substances such as sulphur dioxide (SO2) and lead (Pb). However, complex links between emissions and ambient air quality means that lower emissions have not always produced a corresponding drop in atmospheric concentrations. Many EU Member States do not comply with legally binding air quality limits protecting human health. Exposure of crops and other vegetation to ground-level ozone (O3) will continue to exceed long-term EU objectives. In terms of controlling emissions, only 14 European countries expect to comply with all four pollutant-specific emission ceilings set under EU and international legislation for 2010. The upper limit for nitrogen oxides (NOX) is the most challenging — 12 countries expect to exceed it, some by as much as 50 %.

Human health impacts

Presently, airborne particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are Europe's most problematic pollutants in terms of harm to health. Effects can range from minor respiratory irritation to cardiovascular diseases and premature death. An estimated 5 million years of lost life per year are due to fine particles (PM2.5) alone in the EEA-32.

Effects on ecosystems

Strictly speaking, the EU has not reached its interim environmental objective that was set to protect sensitive ecosystems from acidification. However, the ecosystem area in the EEA-32 countries affected by excess acidification from air pollution was reduced considerably between 1990 and 2010. This is mainly due to past SO2 mitigation measures. Nitrogen (N) compounds, emitted as NOX and ammonia (NH3), are now the principal acidifying components in our air. In addition to its acidifying effects, N also contributes to nutrient oversupply in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, leading to changes in biodiversity. The area of sensitive ecosystems affected by excessive atmospheric nitrogen in the EEA-32 diminished only slightly between 1990 and 2010. Europe's ambient O3 concentrations still reduce vegetation growth and crop yields.

Energy, transport and agriculture are key emission sources

The energy sector remains a large source of air pollution, accounting for around 70 % of Europe's sulphur oxides (SOX) emissions and 21 % of NOX output despite significant reductions since 1990. Road transport is another important source of pollution. Heavy-duty vehicles are an important emitter of NOX, while passenger cars are among the top sources of carbon monoxide (CO), NOX, PM2.5 and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). Meanwhile, energy use by households — burning fuels such as wood and coal — is an important source of directly emitted PM2.5 (primary PM2.5). 94 % of Europe's NH3 emissions come from agriculture.

Air pollutant emissions in the EEA-32 and Western Balkans have fallen since 1990. In 2008, SOX emissions were 72 % below 1990 levels. Emissions of the main pollutants that cause ground-level O3 also declined and emissions of primary PM2.5 and PM10 have both decreasedby 13 % since 2000. Nevertheless, Europe still contributes significantly to global emissions of air pollutants.


Under a current policy scenario, the EEA-32 and western Balkan emissions of the main air pollutants, except NH3, are projected to decline by 2020. Compared with 2008 levels, the largest proportional decreases are projected for emissions of NOX and SO2 — a reduction of some 45 % by 2020 in the absence of additional measures. EU-27 emissions of primary PM2.5 and NH3 are projected to be similar or even slightly higher than in 2008, although substantial reductions are technically possible.


In Europe, various policies have targeted air pollution in recent years. For example, local and regional administrations must now develop and implement air quality management plans in areas of high air pollution, including initiatives such as low emission zones. Such actions complement national or regional measures, including the EU's National Emission Ceilings Directive and the UNECE Gothenburg Protocol, which set national emission limits for SO2, NOX, NMVOCs and NH3. Likewise, the Euro vehicle emission standards and EU directives on large combustion plants have greatly reduced emissions of PM, NMVOCs, NOX and SO2.

Successfully addressing air pollution requires further international cooperation. There is growing recognition of the importance of the long-range movement of pollution between continents and of the links between air pollution and climate change. Factoring air quality into decisions about reaching climate change targets, and vice versa, can ensure that climate and air pollution policies deliver greater benefits to society.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100