A summary of the Year of Air – what we know about air pollution in 2013

In 2013 Europe’s air was a central theme of work at the European Environment Agency (EEA), with several assessments looking at issues related to the gases, liquid droplets and solid particles polluting the atmosphere in many parts of Europe

The European Commission also focused much of its work on air this year. Assessments from the EEA fed into a review of European Union air policy, which resulted in a ‘Clean air policy package’ introducing several new legislative proposals.

Scientific understanding of air pollution is improving. More sensitive measurements are demonstrating that air pollution is more serious than previously thought, while at the same time, medical science is showing the extent of air pollution’s effects on people.

Assessments during the Year of Air showed:

  • More than nine out of 10 city-dwellers in Europe are exposed to air pollutants above World Health Organisation guidelines, according to the EEA’s Air Quality report.
  • Air pollution legislation is not always fully implemented, according to an EEA study of several cities. The report called for better data and monitoring techniques to help pinpoint problems.
  • Cutting air pollution may also help address climate change – a recent EEA report on shipping emissions showed that improving ship efficiency could benefit both areas. Black carbon is one of the pollutants affecting both human health and the climate, but monitoring remains patchy.
  • In 2011, several EU Member States breached legal limits for air pollution, mostly for nitrogen oxides (NOx). Traffic is one of the main sources of NOx.
  • A growing body of scientific evidence suggests air pollution is more harmful than previously thought. This was reinforced by a statement in October from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classified air pollution as carcinogenic.[pdf, 77kB]
  • This pollution also has an economic cost to society. For example, air pollution from lorries alone costs the EU approximately € 45 billion in health costs and environmental damage, although the same lorry can cause different costs depending on the route taken, according to an EEA assessment published in February.
  • Many cities are taking positive steps to cut air pollution from transport, with innovative policies cutting car use and driving a rapid uptake of bicycle transport.