Despite reduction in emissions of various air pollutants in the last 20 years, air pollution is still causing harm to European ecosystems
Air pollution continues to harm sensitive ecosystems, despite a ‘marked improvement’ in emissions of various pollutants over the last two decades, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).
The findings come in two reports published this week (June 30) by the EEA – an agency of the European Union which provides independent information on the environment.
The Agency’s European emission inventory report covers the period 1990-2012 and is submitted each year to the UN’s Convention on Transboundary Air Pollution.
According to this report, air pollution has improved significantly over the last two decades, with sulphur dioxide emissions – which are a major cause of acidification – in particular being a “major success storyâ€? of European legislation, with emissions falling 84% over the reporting period.
This, the report states, is largely due to policies aimed at switching fuels, installing flue gas scrubbers in industrial plants and reducing the sulphur content of transport fuel.
Furthermore, pollutants causing eutrophication – nitrogen oxides and ammonia – have also fallen by 51% and 28% respectively, although 11 countries still exceeded Gothenburg Protocol limits for these pollutants in 2012.
However, the second EEA report – ‘Effects of air pollution on European ecosystems’ – assesses the proportion of ecosystems exposed to nitrogen dioxide and sulphur-containing pollutants above sustainable levels, which found that when pollutants exceed these levels they can harm plants and animals.
This report does also note the impact of work to tackle acid rain, which can kill fish and damage forests and affected around half of sensitive ecosystems in the 28 EU member states in 1980. It now affects around 5% of ecosystems, the report found.
But, despite some improvements, almost 60% of European sensitive ecosystems are still affected by eutrophication – an oversupply of nitrogen which can change ecosystems.
While the situation has continued to improve since the peak of eutrophication in 1990, when around 80% of ecosystems were affected, the report indicates that air pollution will “cause significant eutrophication for years to comeâ€?.
Hans Bruyninckx, EEA executive director said: “Although air pollution does not cause as much harm as it once did, we are still struggling to protect sensitive ecosystems from harmful effects such as eutrophication. This changes habitats, endangering a wide range of species from fish to flowering plants. It is particularly striking that the problem appears to be just as bad in Europe’s protected natural areas.â€?