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Cleaner air, a stable climate and healthier lives

“The European Union has made substantial progress in improving air quality by adopting and implementing policies and measures since the 1980s.

“Yet, air pollution continues to pose the greatest environmental risk to people’s health in Europe. This risk is even higher when combined with climate change impacts, such as extreme heat, affecting vulnerable groups, like the elderly and children the most.

“According to our latest estimates, at least 253,000 deaths in the EU in 2021 were attributable to exposure to fine particulate matter levels above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline value of 5 µg/m3. Despite the positive trend, the number of deaths related to air pollution remains strikingly high’, says Leena Ylä-Mononen, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU’s data-gathering agency for the environment.

Leena Ylä-Mononen
Leena Ylä-Mononen
EEA Executive Director

Children and the elderly suffer the most

In her end of year message, she continues: “The burden of air pollution falls disproportionally on the most vulnerable in our society, with social and economic inequalities being linked to exposure to poorer air quality. Children and the elderly tend to suffer the worst health consequences from breathing in polluted air, whilst people on lower incomes often live in the most polluted areas.

“As well as causing deaths, for example due to cancer and heart disease, air pollution impacts the quality of life of people living with diseases. Many of us suffer or have family members suffering from diseases such as asthma, heart diseases or diabetes, and know how air pollution can hamper our ability to do simple daily tasks. We should also not forget the significant costs air pollution continues to put on our healthcare systems.

Extreme heat and air pollution combined

“Add to this the increasing impacts of climate change, like the heatwaves we have seen over recent years or climate-change related forest fires, which also exacerbate the problem. Changes in weather patterns can also increase the risks posed by air pollution. For example, ground-level ozone concentrations can increase during hot and dry periods. Decreasing rainfall can also result in higher particulate matter concentrations in the air.

“When combined, air pollution and extreme heat can result in higher mortality rates, particularly for the elderly and people with existing illnesses. This increased risk calls for even more urgent action to reduce air pollution, reducing related illness and increasing the capacity of the population to cope with higher temperatures. The cocktail of pollution and heat is particularly serious in cities, where air quality is poor, and the urban heat island effect leads to even higher local temperatures.

“You might ask, ‘why take action?’ It is because these deaths attributed to air pollution can be prevented. It is because we can improve the everyday lives of millions of Europeans, whose health and quality of life are affected by air pollution – severely or discreetly.

Air quality action saves and improves lives

“Thanks to EU legislation and action at national, regional and local levels, the number of deaths attributable to exposure to fine particle pollution in the EU has nearly halved in the past two decades. Europe is on track to achieve its zero-pollution action plan target of reducing these deaths by 55% by 2030, compared to 2005.

“Yet, reaching this target will still leave a significant number of deaths occurring every year. To protect the health of our citizens, the EU and all our member countries should ultimately aim to achieve the WHO guidelines on air pollution. Strengthening the existing standards in EU legislation will support this objective as well as actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the EU climate goals.

“The recent climate talks in Dubai, COP28, concluded with a significant agreement, among others, to cut emissions even faster and to transition away from fossil fuels. The agreement calls for action to keep 1.5°C within reach, which in turn will lower the risks from combined health impacts of heat and air pollution.

“In many cases, taking action on climate change or air quality provides mutual benefits. For example, a sustainable mobility and energy system, including heating and cooling for buildings, can reduce air pollutant emissions as well as of greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the increased risk we face from combined impacts of air pollution and extreme heat. Climate change measures, which bring tangible benefits to local communities in terms of cleaner air and better health, are also more likely to be welcomed by these communities.

Supporting informed decisions

“Knowledge plays a crucial role in determining and implementing policies and measures on the ground. Decision makers at European, national and local levels need to be fully aware of the impacts air pollution is having on citizens’ health as well as on ecosystems, and of the urgency to protect those most affected. Better public awareness of the health impacts of air pollution can also help create greater support for new policies and actions to improve air quality.

“At the European Environment Agency, we offer a wide range of products, from annual analysis to datasets, and indicators to air quality apps, allowing users to check air quality where they live. And we remain committed to providing timely, relevant and reliable knowledge for policymakers and the European public.

“We should not forget what cleaner air will mean: healthier lives for everyone –  I wish you all happy holidays and a happy new year.’

This article was first published by the European Environment Agency and is republished here under Creative Commons Licensing guidelines. The EEA is an official agency of the European Union that delivers knowledge and data to support Europe’s environment and climate goals.

Author: Guest author

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