In its report published in April, the European Environment Agency (EEA) presents air pollution levels by pollutant in 2020 and 2021. Pollutant concentrations are presented in relation to EU air quality standards and WHO guidelines. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already adjusted its recommendations significantly downwards in autumn 2021, considering the latest research findings on air pollution-related health risks.
The EEA report contains the following key statements:
- In 2020, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) temporarily decreased due to reductions in road traffic during the COVID-19 closures. Decreases in annual mean NO2 concentrations of up to 25% were recorded in major cities in France, Italy and Spain; during the first closure in April 2020, NO2 concentrations measured at traffic stations decreased by up to 70%
- Despite these reductions and ongoing overall improvements in air quality, air pollution remains a major health concern for Europeans.
- Central Eastern Europe and Italy reported the highest concentrations of particulate matter and benzo[a]pyrene (a carcinogen), primarily due to the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and their use in industry.
- Ozone levels were lower than in previous years but still high in central Europe and some Mediterranean countries.
- In the European Union, 96% of the urban population was exposed to particulate matter levels above the latest World Health Organisation health-based guideline value.
The EEA explicitly points to the target set by the EU Commission under the Zero Pollution Action Plan of the European Green Deal to reduce premature deaths from particulate matter (PM2.5, a major air pollutant) by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 2005.
To this end, the European Commission has already launched a revision of the air quality directives, which aims, among other things, to bring air quality standards more in line with WHO recommendations.
Despite emission reductions, most of the urban population in the EU was exposed to harmful concentrations of air pollutants in 2020. The EEA graph illustrates how the situation should be assessed by applying the current EU directives or the WHO recommendations.