EU reports sluggish progress in cutting air pollution

Air pollution is still widespread across Europe, and progress has been slow cutting levels of particulate matter (PM2.5 & PM10), ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to the latest report from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Published today (October 16), the report reviews progress countries have made reaching EU Ambient Air Quality Directives and how close they are to meeting World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines, with the latest data analysed being from 2017.

It reports that PM10 concentrations above the EU daily limit of 50 µg/m3 was registered at 22% of all reporting stations and the WHO annual mean guideline of 20 μg/m3 was breached at 51% of the stations.

For PM2.5, levels above the annual EU mean limit of 25 μg/m3 was registered at 7% of the reporting stations. The WHO guideline of 10 μg/m3 for PM2.5 was exceeded at 69% of the stations.

According to the EEA analysis, PM2.5 alone caused about 412,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2016. About 374,000 of those deaths occurred inside the EU.

For O3, 20% of stations registered levels above the EU target value to protect human health, which is 180 µg/m3 over one hour.

The WHO annual mean guideline value for O3 is 100 μg/m3, across an 8-hour mean, which was exceeded in 95 % of all the reporting stations.

This meant that 96% of the EU’s population was exposed to levels of O3 that were potentially harmful to health, a figure that has barely changed since 2000.

The report found that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are still widely registered across Europe, even though levels are decreasing. In 2017, around 10 % of all the reporting stations recorded concentrations above the EU annual mean limit of 40 µg/m3, which is the same as the WHO guideline.

These stations were located in 16 of the EU-28 and four other reporting countries. In total, 86 % of concentrations above this limit value were observed at the roadside.

Earlier this month, ClientEarth published analysis of UK government data that found 36 out of 43 local authority areas still have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries said: ‘It is simply unacceptable that any of us should need to worry about whether the simple act of breathing is safe or not. We therefore need to work even harder to make sure our EU air quality standards are met everywhere.’

Yesterday, the government confirmed that it may be another three years until a target is set for reducing fine particulate matter (PM2.5), after the government introduced its Environment Bill.

There was no mention of the World Health Organisation (WHO) annual mean guideline for PM2.5 of 10 μg/m3. Rather, it says the Secretary of State must seek independent advice before coming to a conclusion before October 31 2022 on what the target date should be.

It also says that they must be satisfied the target can be realistically met, which can be either a long term or short term ‘legally binding’ date to replace the current EU legislation.

However, a Defra report from July already said that it was ‘technically feasible’ that the WHO 2030 guideline could be met in the UK.