This article is part of our special report Polluted air: the invisible killer.
Air quality is rapidly becoming more and more of an emotionally-charged subject as the health implications become more explicit. Here is how things stand at both EU and national level.
According to the European Commission’s plans to drag the EU economy onto a Paris Agreement-compliant trajectory, achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will yield significant health and financial benefits.
The as-yet-pending strategy for mid-century “will reduce premature deaths caused by fine particulate matter by more than 40% and health damage by around €200 billion per annum”, the EU executive predicts.
A combination of decarbonised, decentralised and digitalised power, more efficient and sustainable batteries, highly efficient electric powertrains, connectivity and autonomous driving will help decrease air pollution, which causes around 400,000 premature deaths in the EU per year.
But according to a special version of the EU’s Eurobarometer, released on 27 November, the majority of Europeans (68%) have not heard of the bloc’s raft of air quality standards.
Only 31% said they are aware of the legislation, which marks a slight increase in awareness since 2012, when only 25% of respondents said they knew about the benchmarks.
More than six in 10 of those who responded in the positive also said that those same standards should be strengthened, despite official figures showing that air quality has indeed improved in recent years.
Nearly 40% of respondents said the EU should propose additional measures and nearly 40% of those said they would like to express their views on what should and what should not be done.
Environmental activists contacted by EURACTIV agreed that more measures are needed and that public input should be taken seriously. There are various citizens initiatives aimed at doing just that.
But most measures are implemented, or not, at the member state level. This is how things stand in a few notable examples.
Czech improvements but work to be done
Following the collapse of the communist regime, air quality improved significantly in the Czech Republic. Over the last 15 years, air pollutant emissions fell, due to financial assistance and other support instruments, but still exceed limits in some areas.
There is a long-term problem with PM10, PM2.5 and benzo(a)pyrene, with household heating representing the main contributor. There is widespread use of fossil fuel boilers, which is linked to the Czech energy sector’s heavy reliance on coal.
Air pollution is also caused by road transport, especially in Prague and its surroundings because many people commute daily to work in the capital by car.
Pollution is high especially in the north-eastern Moravian-Silesian region. The regional capital, Ostrava, is the industrial centre of the country and is polluted not only by local coke plants, steel factories and households but also from factories located in neighbouring Poland.
Local authorities are trying to tackle the problem through a regional development strategy focusing on air improvement measures. There are also a few EU-funded programmes.
For example, the CLAIRO project measures the impact of urban greenery on air quality. There are also other projects focused on public awareness about low air quality, for example, through proper environmental education in primary schools.
According to Czech expert Bedřich Moldan, the government takes various measures to improve air quality but it is difficult to prove if they are effective enough. “There are lots of strategies and measures, especially the ones made by the Ministry of the Environment,” he told EURACTIV.cz.
The most popular measure is an EU-funded programme aimed at subsidising the replacement of old boilers. Moldan noted that he is not in favour of this measure because new boilers still burn solid fuels, which produce aerosol particles.
“I think that other ways of heating should be prioritised, especially heat pumps that are also subsidised. Currently, even though it is fossil fuel too, the gas burning is the clearest way to lower the air pollution,” he explained.
“However, the Ministry of the Environment does not really prefer this way, despite the fact that necessary infrastructure already exists,” Moldan added.
Slovakia’s success and shortcomings
Across the border in Slovakia, the biggest problem is also with PM2.5, PM10, ground-level ozone and benzo(a)pyrene, according to both the latest EEA report on air quality and the government’s environment report.
Of these, the government report details only the source of two of them. In 2016, households – in other words, domestic heating – were the main source of both PM2.5 (86% share) and PM10 (75%).
In an interview with EURACTIV.sk, Environment Ministry State-Secretary Norbert Kurilla said domestic heating is the biggest source of air pollution.
He explained that many small Slovak towns are located in valleys where there is little wind and no high stacks to release it high above. As for transport, it is a significant source of pollution in traffic-heavy Bratislava.
Dana Mareková from Slovak NGO “For Clean Air” said its own air monitoring “confirmed that in Bratislava we breathe air that harms us every day”.
At nine of the city’s busiest junctions, the NGO observed values of PM2.5 and PM10 that are above the scientifically validated limits. “Children, pregnant women and aged persons suffer the most,” the activist explained.
Ahead of the Clean Air Forum in Bratislava, Mareková said: “we expect resolute steps from the politicians – we want to know what we breathe and we want healthier air”.
According to the EEA, 5,000 Slovaks die prematurely due to air pollution every year. The government has taken several steps to improve the situation including the extension of the monitoring network from 38 to 52 stations.
Kurilla also said the outgoing government has, since 2016, enabled towns and cities to create low-emission zones, increased emission ceilings for small and medium-sized energy sources, launched a subsidy scheme for households to replace their heating and improved the monitoring framework.
On the other hand, Slovakia is one of the countries that still have not sent the European Commission the final version of its National Air Pollution Control Programme, despite the April 2019 deadline.
In the past, Slovak authorities have been criticised by NGOs for concentrating on the big polluters instead of local heating and for lack of investment in cleaner local transport. A vast majority of public investment in clean air comes from EU funds.
In March 2018, the Supreme Audit Office said the measures taken between 2007 and 2013 “cannot be considered efficient and effective” since Slovakia had been failing to respect EU legislation.
There are two infringement cases pending against Slovakia on air quality. Since 2009, there is an ongoing case on PM10; the last step in the case was an additional reasoned opinion in 2014.
Although Slovakia still exceeds the limit values, it was not yet referred to the ECJ. The Commission stated in 2018 that the communicated measures appear to be able to appropriately tackle the identified gaps in air quality, if correctly implemented.
There is also a formal notice dating back to 2017 for failing to ensure an appropriate number and type of sampling points and to provide sufficient valid data for air pollution by NO2.
Air quality is one of the most important environmental issues according to almost half of the population, topped only by growing amount of waste, according to a 2017 Eurobarometer.
The newly released Special Eurobarometer shows there is a discrepancy between Slovak public opinion and the EU average on three accounts.
Fewer Slovaks believe that public authorities are not doing enough, they feel much stronger than average Europeans that they can personally contribute (by replacing their own energy-intensive equipment) but fewer than the EU average believe that stricter pollution controls should be applied on industrial and energy-production activities.
As a result of Poland’s love affair with the coal industry in its southern regions, the country has some of the most polluted air across the EU. Thirty-three of the bloc’s 50 dirtiest cities in 2018 were located Poland.
Poles are now often heard retelling a decade-old joke: ‘When you open a window in Krakow, you don’t freshen the air in your apartment, you freshen the air outside’.
NGO Polish Smog Alert has recently warned of alarming levels of air pollution in the country. According to their research released last month, smaller towns are the most affected by smog, because many people continue to burn coal to heat their homes during the cold season.
Large cities such as Krakow and Katowice make the top of most polluted Polish localities.
The NGO said on its website that the poor condition of air is responsible for 48,000 premature deaths in the country.
Poland still struggles with its Soviet hangover in its fight to combat air pollution and transform the country’s energy production, the country’s then-deputy environmental minister Michał Kurtyka said in an October interview.
“When we entered the transition of 1989, nearly 100% of our energy was provided by coal. It was not the case of our neighbours,” he said, adding that “cleaning up after the communist period was very costly”.
With growing pressure from civil society and dissatisfied citizens, local-level governments have begun taking steps to fight smog and improve air quality in their cities.
Kurtyka pointed out that Poland has put forward “an unprecedented programme” of €25 billion to change household heating systems and installations. After a period of uncertainty where external funding was in doubt, the programme now looks to have a more secure future.
An ambitious programme has also kicked off in Kraków, a 1.7 million-citizen metro area where pollution is a notorious companion. In 2018, the local government outlawed the use of the cheapest, most polluting coal, and by the end of this year aims to ban all burning of coal and wood.
France has generally been a bad student of improving air quality. With years of public subsidies for diesel, the high number of diesel cars in France is widely responsible for the levels of small particles.
Historically, tax incentives granted to diesel were a post-war measure meant to benefit road hauliers and farmers, who used diesel vehicles.
But car manufacturers rushed into the fiscal breach in the 1980s and started to commercialise private cars powered by diesel. Even if the fiscal incentives for diesel have been slowly cut, a lot of French drivers still use old diesel cars.
Some cities – like Paris – are gradually banning diesel vehicles to improve air quality. After 2020, it will not be possible to drive in the French capital with a diesel car and older autos have already been banned.
Strasbourg, the other seat of the European Parliament, has adopted a similar measure for 2025, and other large French cities, such as Marseille and Lyon, are developing Low Emission Zones.
France has been warned over and over about air quality by the EU and on 24 October, the Court of Justice of the EU sentenced the country for “systematically and persistently exceeded the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide since 1 January 2010” in 12 French agglomerations.
The French government has promised to quickly improve air quality as a result but in case progress is too slow, France could be exposed to financial sanctions.
A European Environment Agency (EEA) report from October states that even though air quality has improved, pollution due to fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone caused about 400,000 premature deaths in 2016 alone, almost 60,000 of them in Germany.
For Germany, the EEA estimates that 591,400 years of life have been lost because of air pollution – more than anywhere else in Europe.
Calculated per inhabitant, Germany is slightly below the EU average and in the lower third of the world in terms of fine particles pollution, but in terms of nitrogen dioxide pollution, it is in the lead.
In the home of Volkswagen, the firm behind the emissions-cheating Dieselgate scandal, transport is the main culprit.
Jürgen Resch, Managing Director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), calls for immediate measures: “Unfortunately, the federal government is also the export champion for dirty fraud diesel cars,” he said.
“But instead of sending the problem to Southern and Eastern Europe, Chancellor Merkel must finally force all car manufacturers to recall all affected vehicles at short notice.
Several German cities have decided to implement diesel bans in order to curb pollution levels, triggering court cases between various plaintiffs.
The ECJ even got involved this month, ruling that regional government officials cannot be threatened with jail sentences in order to incentivise them to implement court-ordered bans.
Belgium, notably its capital of Brussels, is home to many headquarters of the EU institutions. But despite the drive by officials in the Commission and Parliament to clean up Europe’s air, the country and city score poorly
In 2016, the European Commission even took the Belgian government to task over alleged failures in safeguarding air quality in the EU quarter. The government had failed to report pollution levels recorded on two of the most congested roads in the city.
Brussels has a number of contingency measures in place, including bans on wood-burning stoves and free public transport once air quality limits are exceeded by a certain amount for a certain amount of time.
An annual car-free day in the city proves to be hugely popular with residents and there have been calls for a monthly or even weekly version to be organised.
Nearly a half of Belgians said in a special Eurobarometer published today that they think households do enough themselves to tackle air pollution, while 80% said that the problem should be tackled at international, rather than national or regional, level.
The Flemish government last month adopted a new air quality plan, the main measure of which is aimed at the federal government and the much-maligned rules on company cars. It is meant to help reduce the health impact of low air quality by half between now and 2030.
But environmental NGO Greenpeace, which had taken the Flanders government to court in 2017 for failing to publish a plan, was non-plussed by the new effort and threatened to seek damages of €1,000 per day until the rules were tweaked.
The original court case was based on Flanders exceeding European standards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for almost a decade. NO2, of which more than 60% comes from traffic, is linked to asthma and cardiovascular problems.
Official figures show that about 9,000 people die prematurely due to bad air quality in Belgium.
Reporting by Aneta Zachová, Pavol Szalai, Katarína Detersová, Cécile Barbière, Claire Stam, Alexandra Brzozowski and Sam Morgan.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]