Europe’s skies have cleared up over the last decade, with less overall emissions and a decline in key air pollutants. In April this year, the air was cleaner in big cities especially, because of COVID closures and restrictions. Inhaling air pollutants causes both respiratory and other disease in the long term, but the causality between air pollution and the severity of COVID-19 infections is not clear.
Brussels (Brussels Morning) Overall better air quality in Europe has reduced premature deaths due to pollution, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). In 2018, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, and Romania were the six EU countries reporting above the EU norm rates for fine particulate matter, the main killer in terms of air pollution.
The impact of air pollution on health is significant, with the number of premature deaths estimated at 417,000 a year in Europe, 379,000 of which occurred within the EU (statistics include the UK). However, those numbers still represent a decline of about 13% or 60,000 deaths since 2009.
The most hazardous pollutants are particulate matter, nitrous dioxide and ozone at the ground level, with particles (soot and smoke being visible due to their size) claiming the most lives. While deaths due to long-term exposure to nitrous dioxide more than halved in the course of the last decade, ground-level ozone remained a concern. Estimated fatalities in 2018 were 20% above those in 2009, a difference that could be attributable to weather and aerodynamics since heat waves can lead to higher ozone concentrations.
Breathing cleaner air this spring
The EEA has yet to estimate the potential positive health effects of the cleaner air experienced in the spring of 2020. The relief the COVID-related closures and restrictions brought about was temporary and short-lived.
Most of the improvements seen in April of this year in Western Europe especially were related to lower volumes of road and air traffic, and to a lesser degree, a reduction in maritime traffic. Levels of particulate matter were lower across Europe in April, registering a third less than usual in some countries. Nitrogen dioxide levels were significantly lower, in some cases as much as 60% down from the prevailing norm.
This was especially true for big cities and their hinterlands in Western Europe. Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Turin and Ankara, as well as Marseilles, all registered significant shifts, recording around half their usual levels of nitrous oxide pollution.
Mostly these changes were attributable to the drop off in traffic volumes. The change was less noticeable in levels of particulate matter, which, while generally reduced, did not lower by as much as nitrous oxide, which is specifically linked to road transport. In rural areas, where pollution by particulate matter is lower overall, the relative change was not significant this spring.
A decade of lower emissions
Apart from traffic, the main contributors to air pollution are related to energy production and processing — the manufacturing and extractive industries, agriculture and waste treatment. Most sectors showed significant reductions in pollution levels over the last decade, in particular with regard to transport.
Both the energy and industrial sectors pollute significantly less now than was the case 20 years ago, whereas domestic energy use (for residential use) showed the slowest decrease in emissions. Agriculture across Europe pollutes somewhat less and so does waste handling, while road transport remains the biggest villain in terms of total nitrous oxide emission.
However, when it comes to the health impact of air pollution, proximity to the source is decisive, taking into account other geographic conditions. Therefore, traffic in urban areas pollutes more in relative terms than industrial emissions or aviation.
Exposure to all air pollutants is most significant in countries with larger populations. For example, countries like Germany, Italy, Poland and France have suffered the greatest impact relative to premature deaths attributed to particulate matter.
Again, in relative terms, the highest incidence of cardiac and respiratory conditions are evident in central and eastern European countries with the highest levels of particulate matter, namely Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The lowest relative impact is to be found in the north and north-west of Europe, notably Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Finland.
For nitrous dioxide levels, the consequences are most dire in Greece, Monaco, Romania, Cyprus, Italy and Spain. As for the overall effect of exposure to ground-level ozone, the number of years of life lost is greatest in Monaco, Albania, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic.
WHO norms more demanding than EU
Of the EU countries, Bulgaria and Poland show significant figures for estimated years of life lost. Particulate matter still exceeds norms in many areas of Italy on a daily basis, while concentrations of nitrous oxide and general exposure to air pollutants remain at a high level in Belgium, mostly due to road transport.
The World Health Organization norms for air quality are generally stricter than EU norms insofar as they are measured against health outcomes whereas the EU norms entail a political compromise that also takes account of what is technically and economically feasible.
In light of these comparisons, some contend that the EU has a long way to go to achieve its stated ambition of zero emissions, and that the latest EU action plan seems more aspirational than realistic.
“At least this shows the scale of the problem,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment in Brussels, maintained on Monday.
”There are trends that raise concern as air pollution links to climate change. Some cities do not fully adapt to the EU rules, yet those who are most vulnerable to pollution live in European cities.”
Some countries look to the Commission for decisive regulatory action, whereas national standards set in others are already above EU levels. Data is mostly based country-by-country reporting combined with some satellite monitoring. Efforts are ongoing to encourage EU countries to comply with rules on air quality.
“There is a continued dialogue to implement changes and fully take on EU legislation and there is assistance on a technical level to do it,” Commissioner Sinkevičius pointed out.
As a final resort, EU member states can be brought to court for non-compliance with norms.