Europe’s air quality can still be deadly despite progress, EEA says

Hans Bruyninckx is the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, taking office on 1 June, 2013. He was born in Schoten, Belgium in 1964. Dr Bruyninckx studied undergraduate and master’s degrees in political science specialising in international relations at Antwerp University and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He also completed an additional programme in development studies at Université Catholique de Louvain.

From 2010 until his appointment at the EEA, he was head of the HIVA Research Institute in Leuven, Belgium, a policy-oriented research institute associated with the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, where he was also head of the Political Science department from 2007 to 2010. Dr Bruyninckx has also been a senior member of the interdisciplinary Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies and promoter-coordinator of the Flemish Policy Research Centre on Transitions for Sustainable Development (TRADO).

Air pollution poses the biggest environmental health risk in the European Union, where in 2018 about 379,000 premature deaths were linked to exposure to particulate matter, 54,000 to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and 19,000 to ground-level ozone.
The EEA report said EU air quality improved in the 10 years to 2018, when premature deaths associated with particulate matter and NO2 were respectively 13% and 54% lower than in 2009.

“In most cases, people are indeed living in air quality that is much improved, and that meets the standards of the EU,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.

Still, most EU citizens in urban areas are exposed to levels of some pollutants that exceed stricter World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

For example, 74% of the EU’s urban population is exposed to particulate matter levels exceeding WHO standards, against 4% above EU limits.

The EEA said policies have helped improve air quality by cleaning up power plants and industry – which emit particulate matter and NO2. Policies such as low-emissions zones in cities had addressed road transport, the biggest source of NO2.

The agriculture sector, which emits ammonia from fertilisers and livestock manure, has been slower to cut pollution.

The EU has already launched legal action against 18 countries for breaching air quality laws and last month took France to court for flouting its rules for more than a decade.

The EEA analysis confirmed that Europe’s air pollution plummeted in April 2020, notably in Italy and Spain, as lockdowns to contain the COVID-19 pandemic curbed polluting economic activity and slashed transport use.

Air quality up in some EU cities during pandemic lockdown.

Air quality significantly improved in European metropolitan areas such as Milan and Madrid because of lockdown restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, European Union officials said Monday.

The improvements were particularly notable for the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter, which both can have a serious impact on people’s health.

An EU report on air quality published Monday showed that among metropolitan areas with the largest NO2 concentrations, Barcelona’s levels sank by 59% during the early spring compared to the year before. NO2 levels in Madrid dropped by 47%.

In Italy, NO2 pollution in Milan fell by 54% and in Rome by 39%. Levels in many other metropolitan areas across Europe, especially western Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, also dropped by significant margins.

“Now we realize that this is, of course, temporary and that we should not be reaching air quality standards by locking down society,” said Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the European Environmental Agency.

“”But it indicates that if we can keep pushing quality standards and if we can keep innovating in those sectors, that indeed serious benefits to society, to human health are there,” he added.

Lockdown measures in several EU member states during the first wave of the pandemic had a major impact on economic activity, dramatically reducing road and air transport plus shipping. That all affected the air quality in the regions.