Air pollution is both an environmental and a social problem, as it leads to a multitude of adverse effects on human health, ecosystems, the built environment and the climate. Air pollution poses the single largest environmental health risk in Europe today. Air pollutants are emitted from anthropogenic and natural sources; they may be transported or formed over long distances; and they may affect large areas. Some air pollutants persist in the environment for long periods of time and they may accumulate in the environment and in the food chain, affecting humans and animals not only via air intake, but also via water and food intake. Air pollution is, therefore, a complex problem that poses multiple challenges in terms of management and mitigation. Effective action to reduce the impacts of air pollution requires a good understanding of the sources that cause it, as well as up-to-date knowledge of air quality status and its impact on humans and on ecosystems.
The current report presents an overview and analysis of air quality in Europe, with a focus on the latest year for which there are available and processed data, namely 2013. It reviews the progress made towards meeting the requirements of the Air Quality Directives (EU, 2004; EU, 2008). It also gives an overview of the latest findings and estimates on population exposure to the air pollutants with the greatest impacts on health in Europe, as well as an overview of the effects of air pollution on human health and on ecosystems. The evaluation of the status of air quality is based on ambient air measurements, in conjunction with data on anthropogenic emissions and their trends. The analysis covers up to 39 European countries (1).
The present analysis indicates that air quality policies have delivered many improvements. Reduced emissions have improved air quality in Europe, and, for a number of pollutants, exceedances of European standards are rare. However, substantial challenges remain and considerable impacts on human health and on the environment persist. A large proportion of European populations and ecosystems are still exposed to air pollution in exceedance of European standards and WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs).
Effective air quality policies require action and cooperation on global, European, national and local levels, which must reach across most economic sectors and engage the public. Holistic solutions must be found that involve technological development, structural changes, including the optimisation of infrastructures and urban planning, and behavioural changes. These will be necessary to achieve protection of the natural capital and to support economic prosperity and human well-being and social development, all of which are part of the EU's 2050 vision (2).
Europe's air quality today
The EU limit and target values for particulate matter (PM) continued to be exceeded in large parts of Europe in 2013. The EU daily limit value for PM with a diameter of 10 μm or less (PM10) was exceeded in 22 of the 28 EU Member States, and the target value for PM with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5) was exceeded in 7 Member States. A total of 17% of the EU‑28 urban population was exposed to PM10 levels above the daily limit value and approximately 61% was exposed to concentrations exceeding the stricter WHO AQG value for PM10 in 2013. Regarding PM2.5, 9% of the urban population in the EU‑28 was exposed to PM2.5 levels above the EU target value (which changes to a limit value from 2015 onwards) and approximately 87% was exposed to concentrations exceeding the stricter WHO AQG value for PM2.5 in 2013 (Table ES.1).
The EU ozone (O3) target value for the protection of human health was exceeded in 18 of the 28 EU Member States in 2013. Conformity with the WHO AQG value for O3 was observed in less than 3% of all stations in Europe in 2013. Some 15% of the EU‑28 urban population lives in areas in which the EU O3 target value threshold for protecting human health was exceeded in 2013. The EU urban population exposed to O3 levels exceeding the WHO AQG was significantly higher, comprising 98% of the total urban population in 2013 (Table ES.1).
The annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was widely exceeded across Europe in 2013, with 93% of all exceedances occurring close to roads. A total of 19 of the 28 EU Member States recorded exceedances of this limit value at one or more stations. Of the EU‑28 urban population, 9% lives in areas in which the annual EU limit value and the WHO AQG for NO2 were exceeded in 2013 (Table ES.1).
Benzo[a]pyrene, an indicator for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Exposure to benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) pollution is quite significant and widespread, in particular in central and eastern Europe. Approximately half of the BaP measurement stations in Europe were in exceedance of the EU target value in 2013, mostly in urban areas. About 20% of the total European population was exposed to BaP annual mean concentrations above the European target value in 2012 and about 88% lives in areas with concentrations above the estimated reference level (3). Considering only urban populations, in 2013 25% of the EU‑28 urban population was exposed to BaP concentrations above the target value, and as much as 91% was exposed to BaP concentrations above the estimated reference level (Table ES.1).
Other pollutants: sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, toxic metals and benzene
The EU-28 urban population was exposed to only a few exceedances of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) EU daily limit value in 2013. However, 37% of the EU‑28 urban population was exposed to SO2 levels exceeding the WHO AQG in 2012.
Exposure of the European population to carbon monoxide (CO) concentrations above the EU limit value and WHO AQG is very limited, localised and sporadic. No reporting stations in either the EU‑28 or EEA-33 groups of countries registered exceedances of the CO limit value in 2013.
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 accumulation of toxic metal levels in soils, sediments and organisms.
Exceedances of the limit value for benzene (C6H6) were likewise limited to very few locations in Europe in 2013.
Sources of air pollution
Transport, industry, power plants, agriculture, households and waste management all contribute to Europe's air pollution. Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe have declined since 1990, resulting in generally improved air quality across the region. However, certain sectors have not sufficiently reduced their emissions in order to meet air quality standards or have even increased emissions of some pollutants. For example, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from road transport have not sufficiently decreased to meet air quality standards in many urban areas. Furthermore, emissions of PM2.5 and BaP from coal and biomass combustion in households and from commercial and institutional buildings have risen in the EU in the past decade. These sources are now the main contributors to total PM and BaP emissions in the EU.
Although European air quality is projected to improve in future with a full implementation of existing legislation, further efforts to reduce emissions of air pollutants are necessary to assure full compliance with EU air quality standards set for the protection of human health and the environment. For example, non‑exhaust emissions of PM from transport (i.e. tyre, road and brake wear) are important and are currently not regulated.
Impacts of air pollution on health
Air pollution continues to have significant impacts on the health of Europeans, particularly in urban areas. It also has considerable economic impacts, cutting lives short, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through working days lost across the economy.
Europe's most problematic pollutants in terms of harm to human health are PM, ground-level O3 and NO2. In addition, BaP (an indicator for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) causes adverse health effects, particularly in eastern Europe.
Estimates of the health impacts attributable to exposure to air pollution indicate that PM2.5 concentrations in 2012 were responsible for about 432 000 premature deaths originating from long‑term exposure in Europe (over 40 countries; see Table 9.2), of which around 403 000 were in the EU‑28. In the same year, the estimated impact of exposure to NO2 (long-term exposure) and O3 (short-term exposure) concentrations on the population in the same 40 European countries was around 75 000 and 17 000 premature deaths, respectively, and around 72 000 and 16 000 premature deaths, respectively, in the EU‑28.
Exposure and impacts on European ecosystems
Air pollution continues to damage vegetation and ecosystems. It leads to several important environmental impacts, which affect vegetation directly, as well as the quality of water and soil and the ecosystem services they support. The most harmful air pollutants in terms of damage to ecosystems are O3, ammonia (NH3) and NOx.
Europe's sustained ground-level O3 concentrations damage agricultural crops, forests and plants by reducing their growth rates. The EU target value for protection of vegetation from O3 has been exceeded in about 27% of the EU‑28 agricultural land area in 2012, mostly in southern and central Europe. The long‑term objective for the protection of vegetation from O3 was exceeded in 86% of the total EU‑28 agricultural area, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) critical level for the protection of forests was exceeded in 67% of the total EU‑28 forest area in 2012.
NOx, SO2 and NH3 contribute to the acidification of soil, lakes and rivers, causing the loss of animal and plant life and biodiversity. Improvements in reducing ecosystem exposure to excess levels of acidification have been made in past decades, largely as a result of declining SO2 emissions. An estimated 7% of the total EU‑28 ecosystem area and 5% of the Natura 2000 (4) area were at risk of acidification in 2010. This represents a reduction of 30% and 40%, respectively, from 2005 levels.
Apart from causing acidification, NH3 and NOx emissions also disrupt land and water ecosystems by introducing excessive amounts of nutrient nitrogen. This leads to eutrophication, an oversupply of nutrients that can lead to changes in species diversity and to invasions of new species. It is estimated that around 63% of European ecosystem areas, and 73% of the area covered by Natura 2000-protected sites, remained exposed to air-pollution levels exceeding eutrophication limits in 2010.