Air pollution in Europe – an invisible danger


Bad night's sleep, spilled your coffee, and now to squeeze into an overstuffed train. Take a deep breath – or maybe better not? While air quality has slowly been improving, pollution in many parts of Europe is still very high. According to the latest report of the European environmental organization EEA, 27 countries measured values above the daily limits set by the EU. 

The air was especially thick in Bulgaria, Poland, and parts of northern Italy. But the rest of Europe was not doing much better in the EEA’s report. Only four countries (Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, and Switzerland) remain far below the annual emission averages recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, these values are a bit stricter than those set by the EU.1

Air pollution with devastating results

According to estimates, 400,000 people a year die an early death due to the consequences of bad air quality. Air pollution therefore represents the leading health risk with environmental causes in Europe. Polluted air is associated in particular with cardio-vascular illnesses, stroke, and lung disease. In addition to the health risks to people, the pollution also has severe effects on the animal and plant kingdoms. Farmers for instance lament significant lost harvests. The emissions are of course also closely associated with worldwide climate change. In view of this gloomy outlook, one question poses itself: what is being done to improve air quality sustainably?

Street traffic as the main culprit

In addition to industry, agriculture, and energy production, road traffic is considered one of the main causes of air pollution. One of the reasons for this is that dangerous gases are created close to the ground – especially in urban regions in which a majority of the population lives and works. Many measures by the EU and national governments target the reduction of car exhaust fumes. Supporting electromobility is a central part of this strategy. Tax benefits and cheaper parking as well as the development of the charging station infrastructure are intended to make electronic vehicles more attractive. In addition, many cities are working on electrifying public transport as well as taxis and rental cars. For instance in London, new licenses are only being issued to hybrid taxis.2    

At the same time, vehicles that are damaging to the environment will slowly disappear from cities due to environmental zones and driving bans. For instance in Paris, no vehicles older than 18 years may enter the center, starting July 2019. And in Copenhagen, diesel vehicles are no longer permitted. Rome is supposed to be diesel-free by 2024 and Milan no later than 2030.3 In contrast, driving bans are still being hotly debated elsewhere, for instance in German cities. Despite court orders, politicians here still balk at such measures. The suitability of the EU limits for air pollution, fine dust, and nitric oxides are also still being questioned. At the moment, the exhaust limits are in fact being studied – however, if anything, they will be even stricter.4 

A look into the future

In summary, lots is being done to improve European air quality sustainably. However, we are still far away from a permanent solution. It is important to develop a joint concept for Europe – air pollution does not simply stop when it reaches a national border. In order for this to be successful, everybody should pay attention to their own personal ecological footprint – so we can breathe freely.

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