Despite considerable improvements in the past decades, Europe is still far from achieving levels of air quality that do not pose unacceptable risks to humans and the environment. Air pollution is the top environmental risk factor of premature death in Europe; it increases the incidence of a wide range of diseases and has several environmental impacts, damaging vegetation and ecosystems. This constitutes a substantial loss for Europe: for its natural systems, its agriculture, its economy, the productivity of its workforce, and the health of Europeans. The effects of poor air quality have been felt most strongly in two main areas. Firstly, inhabitants in urban areas have experienced significant health problems. Secondly, air pollution has led to impaired vegetation growth in ecosystems and agriculture, as well as to biodiversity loss, for example in grassland ecosystems, due to eutrophication.
This report presents an overview and analysis of air quality in Europe from 2003 to 2012, as well as estimates of urban population and ecosystem exposure to air pollution. The evaluation of the status and trends of air quality is based on ambient air measurements, in conjunction with anthropogenic emissions and their trends. It reviews progress towards meeting the requirements of the air quality directives (EU, 2004 and 2008c) and provides an overview of policies and measures to improve air quality and minimise air pollution impacts on public health and ecosystems. The latest findings and estimates of the effects of air pollution on health and its impacts on ecosystems are also reviewed. The analysis covers up to 38 European countries (10), including the 28 EU Member States, and member countries of the European Environment Agency (EEA-33).
At present, particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone (O3) are Europe's most problematic pollutants in terms of harm to human health, followed by benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) (an indicator for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In terms of damage to ecosystems, the most harmful air pollutants are O3, ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOX).
Population exposure and impacts on health
European citizens often breathe air that does not meet European standards. Current pollution levels, especially for PM, O3, and BaP, clearly impact large parts of the urban population. Table ES.1 gives an overview (11) of the proportion of the EU urban population exposed to pollutant concentration levels above the limit and target values set in EU legislation and the World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) in recent years (2010–2012). Figure ES.1 shows the average concentrations (12) the urban population has been exposed to during recent years for PM10, O3 and NO2. Developments over time indicate that exposure to O3 has remained more or less stable, with some yearly variations. Exposure of the European urban population to PM10 and to NO2 has decreased, especially for the latter. Exposure to BaP is also a matter of increasing concern, as BaP emissions have increased by 21 % from 2003 to 2012, driven by the increase (24 %) in BaP emissions from domestic combustion in Europe. In 2012, 25 % of the urban population (13) in the EU was exposed to BaP concentrations above the target value.
Estimates of the health impacts attributable to exposure to air pollution indicate that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations in 2011 were responsible for about 458 000 premature deaths in Europe (over 40 countries (14)), and around 430 000 in the EU-28, originating from long‑term exposure. The estimated impact of exposure to O3 concentrations (15) in 2011 on the European population was about 17 400 premature deaths per year, as a total for the same 40 countries, and about 16 160 in the EU-28, originating from short-term exposure.
Exposure and impacts on European ecosystems
Air pollution's principal effects on European ecosystems are eutrophication, acidification and damage to vegetation resulting from exposure to O3 and ammonia (NH3). As sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions have fallen, NH3 emitted from agricultural activities, and nitrogen oxides (NOX) emitted from combustion processes have become the predominant acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants (EEA, 2014e). Despite cuts in emissions of toxic metals in the EU, a significant share of the EU ecosystem area is still at risk of contamination, especially for mercury (Hg) and, to a lesser extent, lead (Pb).
O3 is considered to be the most damaging air pollutant to vegetation, with significant effects on the growth of trees, on vegetation in general, and on important crops including wheat, soybeans and rice. In 2011, about 18 % of the agricultural area in the EEA-33 was exposed to O3 levels above the target value for protecting crops, with the highest impacts felt in Italy and Spain. The long-term objective (LTO) was exceeded in 87 % of the agricultural area. In addition, the critical level for the protection of forests was exceeded in 67 % of the total forest area in the EEA-33, and in 84 % of the EU Natura 2000 areas in 2011.
Concerning eutrophication, calculated exceedances of critical loads (16) in 2010 cover most of continental Europe as well as Ireland and southern areas of the United Kingdom and Sweden. Some 63 % of the EU-28 total area of sensitive ecosystems and 73 % of the EU Natura 2000 surface area are at risk of eutrophication (EEA, 2014e). On the other hand, the total area of sensitive ecosystems in the EU-28 in exceedance of critical loads of acidity in 2010 was down to 7 %; it dropped to 5 % for EU Natura 2000 surface area (EEA, 2014e). Nevertheless, it may still take decades to achieve full recovery from past acidification of European ecosystems.
Effects on climate change
Several air pollutants are also climate forcers, having a potential impact on the planet's climate and global warming in the short term (i.e. decades). Tropospheric O3 and black carbon (BC), a constituent of PM, are examples of air pollutants that are short-lived climate forcers and contribute directly to global warming. Other PM components such as organic carbon, ammonium, sulphate, and nitrate may have a cooling effect.
Measures to cut BC emissions to the air, along with other pollutants leading to tropospheric O3 formation, among them methane (CH4) (itself a GHG), will help reduce health and ecosystem damage, and the extent of global warming. Air quality and climate change can thus be tackled together by policies and measures developed through an integrated approach.
Main findings in air pollutant concentration status and trends
Particulate matter (PM)
- The reductions observed in ambient PM10 concentrations over the 2003–2012 period reflect the slowly declining emissions of PM emitted directly into the air. On average, PM2.5 rural and urban background concentrations have remained at the same level from 2006 to 2012, while a small decline has been observed at traffic stations.
- Of the EU-28 urban population, 21 % lives in areas where the EU daily limit value for PM10 concentrations was exceeded in 2012. For EEA‑33 countries, the estimate is 38 %.
- EU urban population exposure to PM levels exceeding the WHO AQG is significantly higher, reaching 64 % and 92 % of the total EU-28 urban population in 2012 for PM10 and PM2.5, respectively (Table ES.1 shows the range for 2010 to 2012).
- There is no clear trend for O3 concentrations between 2003 and 2012 in 80 % of the monitoring stations. While 18 % of the stations registered a decreasing trend, 2 % registered an increasing trend, most of them in Italy and Spain. It can therefore be concluded that concentrations in the 2003–2012 period do not reflect European reductions in emissions of O3 precursors in the same period.
- Some 14 % of the EU-28 urban population lives in areas where the EU O3 target value threshold for protecting human health was exceeded in 2012. The EU urban population exposed to O3 levels exceeding the WHO AQG — which are stricter than the EU target value — is significantly higher, comprising 98 % of the total urban population (Table ES.1 shows the range for the years from 2010 to 2012).
- Europe's sustained ambient O3 concentrations continue to adversely affect vegetation growth and crop yields, reducing plants' uptake of carbon dioxide and resulting in serious damage and an increased economic burden for Europe.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- There is a clear decreasing trend in NO2 concentrations over the last decade in most European countries and all types of stations. The decrease in NOX emissions (30 % between 2003 and 2012) is greater than the fall in ambient air NO2 annual mean concentrations (ca 18 %) in EU-28. This is attributed primarily to the increase in NO2 emitted directly into the air from diesel vehicles.
- Of the EU-28 urban population, 8 % lives in areas where the annual EU limit value and the WHO AQG for NO2 were exceeded in 2012 (Table ES.1 shows the range for 2010 to 2012).
Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)
- Exposure of the European population to BaP concentrations above the target value is significant and widespread, especially in central and eastern Europe. 25 % of the urban population in the EU was exposed to BaP concentrations above the target value, in 2012. As much as 88 % of the EU urban population was exposed to BaP concentrations above the estimated WHO reference level (17) in 2012 (Table ES.1 shows the range for 2010 to 2012).
- The 21 % increase in BaP emissions from 2003 to 2012, driven by the increase (24 %) in BaP emissions from commercial, institutional and domestic combustion in Europe is therefore a matter of concern: it is heightening the exposure of the European population to BaP concentrations, especially in urban areas.
Other pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), toxic metals and benzene (C6H6)
- In 2012, the EU-28 urban population was not exposed to SO2 concentrations above the EU daily limit value. On the other hand, 37 % of the EU-28 urban population was exposed to SO2 levels exceeding the WHO AQG in 2012 (Table ES.1 shows the range for 2010 to 2012).
- On average, the CO daily 8-hour maximum concentrations decreased by about one third in the EU over the last decade. These reductions in concentrations are in line with the reduction in total emissions. Exposure of the European population to CO concentrations above the EU limit value and WHO AQG is very limited (see Table ES.1), localised and sporadic.
- Concentrations of arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and nickel (Ni) in air are generally low in Europe, with few exceedances of limit or target values. However, these pollutants contribute to the deposition and build-up of toxic metal levels in soils, sediments and organisms.
- Exceedances of the limit value for benzene (C6H6) were limited to very few locations in Europe in 2012, but 10 % to 12 % of the EU-28 urban population was still exposed to C6H6 concentrations above the estimated WHO reference level, from 2010 to 2012 (see Table ES.1).