Despite a small improvement, air pollution continues to cause a lot of premature death and disease in Europe. According to a 2019 analysis conducted by the European Environment Agency (EEA), deaths caused by fine particle air pollution accounted for 307,000 lost lives a year — 10% lower than the 346,000 registered by EEA in 2018.
The reduction in deaths was partly because of favorable weather but mainly because of improvements in air quality across the continent, the EEA said. In the 1990s, the 27 European Union member nations registered almost a million premature deaths due to fine particle air pollution, a figure that was more than halved to 450,000 by 2005.
Poland registered the highest figure of premature deaths from particulate matter per head of population in 2019 (39,300), followed by Germany (53,800), Italy (49,900) France (29,800), and Spain (23,300). Poland and Germany are also Europe’s most coal-dependent countries — between the two of them, they account for half of Europe’s coal energy.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to human health in the continent, with heart diseases and strokes causing the most deaths. The EEA also registered premature deaths linked to other pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3), but these are not counted in the overall toll to avoid doubling up. Deaths caused by NO2 (from thermal power plants and vehicles) dropped by 25% to 40,000, while those linked to O3 declined 13% to 16,800 in 2019, EEA said.
“To breathe clean air should be a fundamental human right. It is a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. Even with improvements in air quality over the past years in our region, we still have a long way to go,” WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, said in a statement. “At WHO, we welcome the work done by the EEA.”
The EU has a plan in place, the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan, that seeks to reduce by 55% by 2030 the number of premature deaths due to the exposure of air pollution. EEA’s report argues the bloc is on track, as deaths were decreased by a third from 2005 to 2019, thanks to investments in cleaner agriculture and industrial practices.
A study earlier this year showed that we lose two years of life with the current levels of air pollution, a figure that reaches up to five years for those living in the most polluted cities. This means that global average life expectancy drops from 74 to 72 just because of air pollution, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by Chicago University.
Making an example of Portugal
While deaths are decreasing in the EU, the European Commission (EC) still wants to crack down on countries that are guilty of foul play — in particular, Portugal. The EC decided to sue the country for “continually and persistently” exceeding the annual NO2 limit in parts of Lisbon and Porto, the country’s largest cities.
In those areas, air pollution mainly comes from road traffic, especially diesel vehicles, the EC said. The country had already been given a notice on the issue in May 2019 and then in February 2020, asking it to adopt the necessary measures. But efforts by the government have so far been “unsatisfactory and insufficient,” a statement from the EC reads.
The EU is pushing for the country to reduce NO2 emissions by limiting access to high-polluting cars to the city centers of Lisbon and Porto. At the same time, cleaner and electric vehicles could make a difference. Lisbon took a first step by investing in cycling, including subsidies to help people buy bikes and cycle sharing schemes, but this is just the tip of what is needed to truly reduce these dangerous emissions.
Before leaving the EU, the UK had also been found guilty by the European Court of Justice of “systematically and persistently” breaching air pollution limits.
All in all, despite being one of the more environmentally conscious areas on the globe, Europe still has a long way to go if it wants to reduce the burden of air pollution.