Nature and Biodiversity

How much of Europe’s urban population is exposed to poor air quality? 

Heart disease and stroke are the two most common causes of premature death related to air pollution.

Heart disease and stroke are the two most common causes of premature death related to air pollution. Image: Unsplash/Ioana Baciu

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Air Pollution

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  • Just 4% of Europe’s urban population breathes air that conforms to standards deemed safe by the World Health Organization.
  • A total of 238,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2020 were linked to exposure to particulate matter.
  • New European Commission legislation aims to cut air pollution-related deaths by 55% by 2030.

Breathe in. Hold it. And breathe out.

If you live in one of Europe’s urban centres, there’s a 96% chance that the breath you just took contains fine particulate matter pollution exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) recommended levels.

This mirrors the global situation, with 99% of the planet’s population breathing air that contains a high level of pollutants, WHO data shows.

Despite improvements over the past two decades, Europe’s air quality remains poor in many places, according to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) Air Quality in Europe 2022 report.

An ageing European population is more susceptible to the threat posed by air pollution.
An ageing European population is more susceptible to the threat posed by air pollution. Image: European Environment Agency.

Around 96% of urban residents in EU countries were exposed to fine particulate matter levels exceeding WHO guidelines in 2020, while the air breathed by 71% contained excessive particulate matter levels, the report shows.

Nine in ten urban dwellers were also exposed to what the WHO classifies as dangerous levels of other pollutants, such as ozone and nitrogen oxide

COVID-19 lockdowns at the time dampened economic activity in much of the Eurozone, resulting in lower ozone levels than previous years, but high levels were still common in Central Europe and some Mediterranean countries.

As the chart above shows, EU air quality standards are less stringent than WHO guidelines, but this is set to change under the European Green Deal’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to bring EU air quality standards more into line with WHO levels.

The legislation is targeting a 55% reduction in premature deaths from fine particulate matter pollution by 2030, compared to 2005.

Air pollution matters

Breathing air containing toxins represents the largest environmental health risk in Europe, the report notes.

Exposure to air pollution can cause a number of life-threatening health conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Heart disease and stroke are the two most common causes of premature death related to air pollution.

In 2020, a total of 238,000 premature deaths in EU member states were linked to particulate matter exposure exceeding WHO guidelines.

A graph showing premature deaths in the EU due to air pollution levels.
A total 238,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2020 were linked to excessive particulate matter. Image: European Environment Agency.

However, there are signs that things are improving. Action to reduce pollution in Europe’s urban areas resulted in a 45% decrease in premature deaths attributable to breathing toxic air, between 2005 and 2020.

At the current rate of air quality improvement and cause-and-effect reduction in premature deaths from air pollution, the Zero Pollution Action Plan’s 2030 target of a 55% reduction compared with 2005 could be achieved by 2026.

That said, two other factors must be taken into consideration. First, an ageing European population is more susceptible to the threat posed by air pollution. And secondly, a growing number of people are migrating to Europe’s cities, increasing the number of people exposed to high concentrations of air pollution.

Clearing the air

Polluted air is also damaging to the environment. Ground-level ozone damages vegetation and reduces biodiversity, for example. Critical levels of ozone were exceeded in almost three-fifths of the total forest area of the European Economic Area in 2020.

Pollutants like ozone can harm agricultural crops and reduce yields, which impacts farmers’ revenues. Ground-level ozone caused crop yield losses of up to 9% in countries like Greece, Albania, Cyprus and Portugal in 2019, as well as losses exceeding 5% in 17 other European countries.

A bar chart showing economic cost of wheat yield losses due to pollution.
Reduced wheat yields from ozone pollution cost France €350 million in 2019. Image: European Environment Agency.

Using wheat as an example, European crop losses due to ozone pollution were highest in France in 2019, reaching €350 million ($373 million), followed by other major wheat producers such as Germany and Poland.

Other harmful ecological impacts from air pollution include acidification and damage to ecosystems as vegetation is exposed to pollutants like nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ammonia.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing to encourage healthy living in cities?

To combat the problem, the European Commission has proposed revising the Ambient Air Quality Directive to improve Europe’s air quality.

New suggested measures include stricter alignment of pollution limits with WHO levels, and tightening air quality monitoring regulations to promote pollution prevention measures.


The proposal further supports enshrining the right to clean air in law. This would include provisions for citizens with health issues caused by air pollution to claim damages, as well as penalties and compensation rules for those contravening air quality safeguards.

The World Economic Forum’s Alliance for Clean Air aims to accelerate action to combat global air pollution. Corporate members of the alliance are committed to measuring pollutants, establishing targets and finding innovative ways to reduce air pollution.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityUrban TransformationGeographies in Depth
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