Air quality has improved dramatically, but there’s still work to be done

Air quality
Although air quality measures have significantly reduced premature deaths, air pollution remains the primary environmental cause of premature deaths in Europe. © UNECE

The JRC coordinated and contributed to two of the ten chapters of the 2016 Scientific Assessment Report of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which was officially launched in Brussels today.

The main findings of the report show that air quality in North America and Europe has improved significantly over the past 30 years thanks mainly to policy-driven reductions in air pollution. The effects of such reductions are that hundreds of thousands of premature deaths have been avoided every year, the average life expectancy in Europe has been increased by a year, soil acidification has effectively been halted, lake acidification levels have been reduced, and fish stock levels are recovering in freshwaters where they had largely disappeared.

However, air pollution is still the main environmental cause of premature deaths in Europe (due mainly to high concentrations of fine particles and ground-level ozone), and ecosystem biodiversity is threatened due to nitrogen deposition.

The report calls for international action and coordination to help reduce urban pollution and meet the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air pollutants. This can be achieved using existing technical measures and by adopting healthy lifestyles that contribute to cleaner air, such as reduced consumption of meat. Controlling air pollution is much less costly than dealing with health and environmental damages. Ratification and implementation of the revised Gothenburg Protocol (2012) could significantly reduce emissions of air pollutants by 2020, and the coordination of air pollution measures and science could help identify and harmonise further cost-effective measures for estimating emissions, and monitoring air quality and impacts.

The assessment report, prepared at the request of the Executive Body of the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), summarises current scientific knowledge on transboundary air pollution issues within the UNECE region (which includes EU Member States, other non-EU European countries, Canada, the Central Asian republics, Israel and the USA). It describes the effectiveness of air pollution measures in addressing large-scale effects on forests and lakes, protecting human health and preventing other air pollution effects (such as loss in biodiversity and damage to crops, the built environment and cultural heritage).

The aim of this assessment is to serve as a basis for considering new directions for policy development and for identifying policy-relevant research questions. Opportunities identified to tackle remaining challenges are largely based on work carried out by the European Monitoring and Environment Programme (EMEP) Task Force on Hemispheric Transport on Air Pollution, which is co-chaired by the JRC. The JRC is also helping to tackle the remaining challenges through other UNECE Task Forces (such as those on Emission Inventories and Projections, Reactive Nitrogen, Integrated Assessment Modelling and Measurements and Modelling), the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), WHO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

 

Further information

Maas, R., P. Grennfelt (eds), 2016. Towards Cleaner Air. Scientific Assessment Report 2016. EMEP Steering Body and Working Group on Effects of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, Oslo.

Maas, R., P. Grennfelt (eds), 2016. Towards Cleaner Air. Scientific Assessment Report 2016: Summary for Policymakers. EMEP Steering Body and Working Group on Effects of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, Oslo.