This is confirmed by the European Environment Agency's new study on air quality in our continent, published on 24 November. And we have the worst news at home: the highest PM10 concentrations are recorded in the Po Valley.
If you live in an urban area, you could be part of the 96% of the population that will be exposed to levels of fine particulate matter exceeding those set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2020. This is stated in the European Environment Agency's new report, Air Quality in Europe 2022, which studies air quality on our continent. In particular, the highest PM10 concentrations were detected in Central and Eastern Europe, due to fossil fuels - such as coal - widely used for domestic heating and in industrial systems. But the Po Valley holds the sad record among the worst in Europe. The high population density and particular weather conditions facilitate the accumulation of pollutants in the atmosphere. The limit of fine particulate concentrations set by the WHO to define the breathable area is 5 µg/m3, but here we have reached average levels of 25 µg/m3, with the highest peaks recorded in the Province of Cremona.
Air quality in Europe and population health
Although emissions of the main air pollutants have decreased in recent decades, air pollution remains the greatest risk to the health of the population and the environment. In Europe, more than 238,000 people died in 2020 due to exposure to concentrations far exceeding those recommended by the WHO. This is why, as part of the Green Deal's Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission has set the ambitious and essential target to reduce the number of deaths caused by fine particulate matter by 55% within 2030 compared to 2005. But strategies adopted to reach it so far are not enough. This is why on 24 October 2022 the Commission published a proposal to revise the air quality directive, which includes stricter and more stringent requirements to tackle the problem at the root.
Pollution and ecosystems
Air pollution is also seriously threatening health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the conservation of biodiversity. Tropospheric ozone (O3), for example, damages crops, timber and forests, reducing growth and harvests. Especially wheat crops were affected in 2019. Among the hardest hit countries was Greece, with losses reaching 9% of yield. But it did not go any better for the other states: in 17 of them the loss exceeded 5%, and in Europe economic losses amounted to EUR 1.418 billion.
The report also analyses the presence of other pollutants that are equally damaging to ecosystems. Such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), which are responsible for changes in the chemical composition of soils, lakes, rivers and sea water.
The Zero Pollution Action Plan set a 25% reduction in the number of ecosystems affected by air pollution by 2030 compared to 2005. In 2020, harmful levels of nitrogen deposition for ecosystems were exceeded in 75% of the surface area of EU Member States, 12% less than in 2005. This is a first step, but further reductions must necessarily follow.
Pollutant sources and emissions in Europe
Total emissions of all major air pollutants in 2020 continued to fall, maintaining the trend already observed in 2005, despite the increase in gross domestic product (GDP) over the same period. This is what is known as the decoupling of emissions and economic activity, which occurs when a variable with an environmental impact (such as emissions) remains stable or decreases as GDP increases. This trend can be the result of several factors, like increased regulation and implementation of new policies, changes in fuel use and improvements in technology and energy efficiency.
But while emissions have decreased significantly in the residential, commercial and institutional energy consumption, road transport and energy supply sectors, we cannot say the same of the agricultural sector. Indeed, in 2020, agriculture was the main source of ammonia and methane production, responsible for 94% and 56% of total emissions respectively. Compared to 2005, there was a decrease of only 8%, the lowest value recorded. For the period 2020-2029, the study's biggest challenge is to reduce ammonia emissions. 11 Member States will have to significantly reduce their emissions to meet their European commitments.
Where do we stand in terms of meeting the commitments made by the 27 Member States? On 11 July 2022, the EEA published the National Emission Reduction Commitments directive (NEC) Communication Study. And the news bodes well. In fact, 13 EU states managed to meet their emission reduction commitments for each of the five main pollutants (ammonia - NH3, non-methane volatile organic compounds - NMVOC, nitrogen oxides NOx, fine particulate matter - PM2.5 and sulphur dioxide - SO2) in the period between 2020 and 2029. And even Belgium and Estonia have already achieved all targets for 2030 and beyond.
Italy, despite being among the top 13 countries in Europe in terms of meeting its commitments, still has a lot of work to do. This is because in order to be prepared for 2030 we still have to reduce ammonia production by 2%, NMVOC by 14%, nitrogen oxides by 17% and PM2.5 by 21%.
Cleaner air is not only a right but also a duty that we must assume, with courageous choices and shared commitments, for our future and that one of the Planet.
- Air quality in Europe 2022
- Europe’s air quality status 2022
- Health impacts of air pollution in Europe 2022
- Zero Pullution Action Plan
- Impacts of air pollution on ecosystems 2022
- Percentage loss of wheat yields due to O3 exposure in 35 European countries in 2019
- Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe
- Sources and Emission of air pollutants in Europe 2022
- National Emission reduction Commitments directive (NEC)
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