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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 in Note 1. 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 [https://bit.ly/3vfQjDG], and data can be downloaded at bit.l y/3Le9h2J .

Note 1.  Classification of monitoring stations and criteria to include them in EEA’s assessments products. (31 March 2022). bit.ly/3rV7fNz

For further information and levels of pollution for PM10, PM 2.5, Ozone, NO2, BaP and ”Other pollutants” see full Briefing: Europe’s air quality status 2022 at : bit.ly/3MpYq6c

The Briefing was published 01 Apr 2022 Last modified 04 Apr 2022

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