The number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is decreasing, but it is still far too high, EU Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius has said.

Better air quality has led to a significant reduction of premature deaths over the past decade in Europe. However, the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) latest official data show that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

“Air quality is improving across the EU thanks to the policies we have been implementing for the past decades. We came to a similar conclusion with the Fitness check of the Ambient Air Quality Directives last year, and in the next Clean Air Outlook report, that we’ll publish shortly. It’s clear that these policies deliver when they are fully implemented,” he told at the Press Conference on the occasion of the launch of the EEA’s ‘Air Quality in Europe – 2020 Report.

However, Sinkevicius stressed, “With close to 400,000 premature deaths each year in the EU linked to air pollution, we know that the cost to society is extremely high. Air pollution affects all of us, but especially the most vulnerable ones – older people, children and those with pre-existing health conditions. It also affects our everyday lives, our economies and our biodiversity”.

The Commissioner said the report is a useful reminder of the causes. “In many regions, the way we source our energy and heat our homes still leads to pollution from particulate matters. In cities across the EU, our mobility and travel systems are still causing pollution from nitrogen dioxide. And the way we grow our food, especially in large scale farming activities, is leading to pollution from ammonia and fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, which ends up deep in our lungs,” Sinkevicius said.

“This is why, in the European Green Deal, we have set ourselves a Zero Pollution Ambition. Work has started on the Zero Pollution Action Plan for air, water and soil, and we launched a public consultation a few days ago. We’re hoping for contributions from all interested sectors. That will help us identify the most effective solutions, put them forward and dramatically increase our efforts to cut pollution,” Sinkevicius said.

“The Action Plan will include a drive to modernise the Ambient Air Quality Directive, and I hope to table the proposal in the second half of 2022. There is plenty to do in the meantime. The current EU air quality standards are still exceeded far too often. So we will continue our resolute action to ensure full implementation of the existing legislation, with the full range of legal tools,” the Commissioner said.

He acknowledged that solving the air quality challenge is not easy. It takes concerted action across sectors and across policies. It means getting everyone on board – citizens, entrepreneurs, researchers and policy-makers. And it means developing a new reflex – learning to ask a new question in transport, energy, industry, agriculture, and urban development. Asking – what does it mean for the air?

“Here at the European Commission, we have that question in mind in our policy-making. We fully understand the need for a zero pollution ambition for toxic-free environment, this is an important part of our efforts for climate neutrality and supporting competiveness and innovation. The European Green Deal is our compass for delivering this, together with our recovery plans that provide Member States the opportunities to start to build back better, with the ‘do no harm’ principle embedded in that work,” Sinkevicius said, adding, “Recent months have reminded us how important clean air is: Air pollution makes us more vulnerable to diseases. It makes so much sense to tackle this challenge decisively. And, with everyone’s engagement, we will”.

The EEA’s ‘Air quality in Europe — 2020 report’ shows that six Member States exceeded the European Union’s limit value for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2018: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland, and Romania. Only four countries in Europe — Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland — had fine particulate matter concentrations that were below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) stricter guideline values. The EEA report notes that there remains a gap between EU’s legal air quality limits and WHO guidelines, an issue that the European Commission seeks to address with a revision of the EU standards under the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

The new EEA analysis is based on the latest official air quality data from more than 4 000 monitoring stations across Europe in 2018.

Exposure to fine particulate matter caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018, according to the EEA assessment. About 379,000 of those deaths occurred in EU-28 where 54,000 and 19,000 premature deaths were attributed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3), respectively, the Commission said.

EU, national and local policies and emission cuts in key sectors have improved air quality across Europe, the EEA report shows. Since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and associated increase in the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Pollutant emissions from energy supply have also seen major reductions while progress in reducing emissions from buildings and agriculture has been slow.

According to the Commission, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009 due to an improvement in air quality. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater as premature deaths have declined by about 54 % over the last decade. The continuing implementation of environmental and climate policies across Europe is a key factor behind the improvements.

EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said the EEA’s data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. “Policies and actions that are consistent with Europe’s zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies,” he said.

Air quality and COVID-19

The EEA report also contains an overview of the links between the COVID-19 pandemic and air quality. A more detailed assessment of provisional EEA data for 2020 and supporting modelling by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), confirms earlier assessments showing up to 60 % reductions of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring of 2020. The EEA does not yet have estimates on the potential positive health impacts of the cleaner air during 2020.

The report also notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which both have been identified as risk factors for death in COVID-19 patients. However, the causality between air pollution and severity of the COVID-19 infections is not clear and further epidemiological research is needed.


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