Better air quality in Europe sees fewer deaths but pollution still a problem

Better air quality in Europe sees fewer deaths but pollution still a problem

The air quality in Europe has improved over the last decade, which has seen fewer deaths linked to pollution, however, a new report has shown that air pollution is still a major problem.

Improved air quality across Europe has seen a reduction in premature deaths related to air pollution in the last decade, however, a new report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

The new EEA analysis is based on the latest official air quality data from more than 4,000 monitoring stations across Europe in 2018.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “The EEA’s data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. Policies and actions that are consistent with Europe’s zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies.”

Improved air quality

The EEA’s ‘Air quality in Europe — 2020 report‘ shows that EU, national and local policies, and emission cuts in key sectors have improved air quality across Europe and that, since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and an associated increase in the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Due to better air quality, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009.

Pollutant emissions from energy supply have also seen major reductions, however, progress in reducing emissions from buildings and agriculture has been slow.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: “It is good news that air quality is improving thanks to the environmental and climate policies that we have been implementing. But we can’t ignore the downside – the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high.

“With the European Green Deal we have set ourselves an ambition of reducing all kinds of pollution to zero. If we are to succeed and fully protect people’s health and the environment, we need to cut air pollution further and align our air quality standards more closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We will look at this in our upcoming Action Plan.”

Breaking the limit

The report highlights that six Member States were over the European Union’s limit value for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2018: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland, and Romania. Only four countries in Europe — Estonia, Finland, Iceland, and Ireland — had fine particulate matter concentrations that were below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) stricter guideline values.

According to the EEA assessment, exposure to fine particulate matter caused around 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018 – with deaths attributed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3). There remains a gap between the EU’s legal air quality limits and the WHO guidelines, the report shows, which the European Commission aims to address standards under the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

Has COVID-19 impacted air quality?

The report contains an overview of the links between the COVID-19 pandemic and air quality. It notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, both of which have been identified as risk factors for death in COVID-19 patients. However, the causality between air pollution and the severity of the COVID-19 infections is not clear and further epidemiological research is needed.

A detailed assessment of provisional EEA data for 2020 and supporting modelling by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), has confirmed the findings from earlier assessments which show up to 60% reductions of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring of 2020. However, the EEA does not yet have estimates on the potential positive health impacts of the cleaner air during 2020.

The European Commission has recently published a roadmap for the EU Action Plan Towards a Zero Pollution Ambition, which is part of the European Green Deal.

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