Three quarters of EU city dwellers breathe toxic air

A new report on air quality in Europe shows that the EU is behind schedule reducing pollution, despite improvements. And the consequences are dramatic, writes Asger Mindegaard.

Most Europeans living in cities are still breathing air that is dangerous to their health, while our governments are failing to bring harmful emissions under control. This is the worrying picture painted by the European Environment Agency (EEA)’ annual report on the status of air quality in Europe, published on Monday. The report is primarily based on data from 2018, but also includes references to the COVID-19 lockdown’s impact on pollution in the spring of 2020.

Despite an overall improvement of air quality in Europe, especially thanks to effective measures taken in the road transport and energy sectors, emission reductions are way too slow-paced. Particularly when it comes to farming and domestic heating.

Lethal sloppiness

Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, impairing people’s respiratory systems and causing heart diseases and strokes. In 2018, fine particle pollution (one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution) alone caused 379,000 premature deaths in the EU. Bulgaria, Croatia, the Chezk Republic, Poland, Romania and Italy all breached legal EU limits for this type of pollution in 2018. And this despite EU limits being laxer than the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s recommendations, that are only met by Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland.

On top, air pollution is wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems and biodiversity by causing over-enrichment of nutrients and acidifying land and water. The pollution also damages agricultural crops and forests, threatening food production and affecting the climate.

Environmental Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius recognised the need to further reduce air pollution in the official EEA press release, and assured that it will be addressed by the upcoming Zero Pollution Action Plan under the European Green Deal. 

However, campaigners warn that EU laws to cut air pollution already exist, but are too often neglected by member states, with the European Commission delaying infringement actions against them. For example, the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive requires national governments to detail programmes showing how they will achieve emission reduction targets for five pollutants by 2020 and 2030. Yet, one year and half past the deadline and with 2020 almost over, the Italian plan is still in draft form while Greece, Luxemburg and Romania have presented no plan at all

“How many wake up calls do government officials need before taking on air pollution?” Margherita Tolotto, Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise at the EEB asks. “Their delay is costing us our health and a safe environment. They know what needs to be done to improve air quality: cleaner energy and industrial production, greener and smarter transport, and sustainable farming.”

An unholy alliance

The impacts of the polluted air go beyond the much worrying number of premature deaths: breathing polluted air compromises our health and makes us more vulnerable, impairing our capacity to fight off lung infections. Such as COVID-19.

On a more positive note, readers might remember the many stories about clear skies and plummeting pollution in the wake of the first round of lockdowns. And the EEA report did find that lockdown measures led to significant air pollution reduction in the EU, particularly from road transport, aviation and shipping. Unfortunately, pollution has jumped back right up to pre-corona levels as economic activity resumed.

Yet having clean air for all without entering in a lockdown is possible: it is time to deeply rethink our energy, industry, transport and farming systems and adjust them in line with the zero pollution ambition. And each sector must do its part.

Tolotto told META: “Any COVID-19 recovery programme must deliver on the European Green Deal and the zero pollution objective, and help build a more resilient future, where clean air is guaranteed for everyone, everywhere.”

The EEB is part of the Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture), which is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Commission.

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