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Air quality in Europe – it’s going the right way

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EEA recently published its annual Air quality in Europe report. In brief, air in Europe is getting better. Levels for major pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), NOx and SOx, all have decreased the last decade. The notable exception is ground-level ozone (O3), which has increased the last years.

However, air pollution remains one of the major environmental health issues in Europe. EEA estimates 417 000 premature deaths due to PM2.5, 50 000 due to NOx and 20 600 due to O3 exposure.

Significant improvement since 2000

As the graph below shows, measures to improve air quality have worked. Most remarkable is the reduction in sulphur oxides (SOx). Switching from coal to low-sulphur fuels such as natural gas, and reduced sulphur levels in liquid fuels. The reduction of particulate matters is less impressive. Particle pollution, and notably the smaller PM2.5 particles, remain the biggest ambient air health issue in Europe. (See our previous article for numbers for other countries.)

Trend in total emissions in Europe. 2010 is set as 100%. Source: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/european-union-emission-inventory-report-1990-2018 .

The polluted belt in Europe

There is a rather clear “air pollution belt” from the Balkans to Poland. A country like Bulgaria looses twice as many life-years to PM2.5 pollution as Germany, and six times more than Sweden, according to EEA numbers.

Years of Life Lost (YLL) in the map below is is defined as the years of potential life lost as a result of premature death. It is an estimate of the average number of years that a person would have lived if they had not died prematurely. YLL takes into account the age at which the death occurs and is greater for deaths at a younger age and lower for deaths at an older age. (Definition of YLL, see Air quality in Europe – 2020 report).

YLL due to PM2.5 2018
Years of Life Lost to PM2.5 exposure in Europan countries in 2018. Grey areas: Not covered in this article. Source: Numbers from Air Quality in Europe – 2020 report. Map tool by mapchart.net.

The last decade there has been a marked improvement, see figure below. Most countries are loosing less years of life due to PM2.5 exposure, with the exception of the Balkans and Poland. Thus, the divide between the clean west (and notably north west) and the more polluted east remains, and clearly needs to be addressed going forward.

YLL %change in Europe 2009-2018
Percent change in years of life (YLL) lost due to PM2.5 exposure from 2009 to 2018. Negative values (green) mean a reduction in YLL, positive values (red) indicate an increase in lost life years. Source: Numbers from Air Quality in Europe – 2020 report.

Europe is heating up – ground level ozone increases

Ground-level ozone stands out in Europe as having increased in the 10-year period the EEA air quality report assesses, from 2009 to 2018.

Ozone (O3) is a particular case. Often, the phrase “good up high, bad nearby” is used to characterize its effects. Ozone is found in two layers of the atmosphere. High up, in the stratosphere, is the ozone that protect us from harmful UV-radiation from the sun. Closer to the earth’s surface we find ground-level ozone, which is harmful both to human health and vegetation.

Ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions from NOx and VOCs in the presence of sunlight and high temperature. The record-warm summer of 2018 in Europe made ozone levels soar, future climate changes may yield unwelcoming results.

Lockdowns took down NOx-levels, less clear for particulate matter

The EEA report also provides a preliminary analysis of how this year’s lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the air quality. NOx levels were significantly reduced, particularly during April 2020. The countries with the strictest lockdown measures, such as Spain and Italy, saw the greatest reductions, most likely due to reduced road traffic.

For particle pollution (PM10 and PM2.5), the conclusions are less clear. In general, the PM10 levels were reduced, but also increased in some areas. Local conditions, such as weather and road dust, may explain some of this, as we found in our article earlier this year.

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