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Atmosphere: Europe

Air pollution

Air pollution was one of the threats to human health and ecosystems that was recognized early in Europe. A treaty (the 1979 ECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution, CLRTAP) was signed as early as the late 1970s and entered into force in 1983 to curb anthropogenic emissions of harmful substances.

Health effects of air pollution related to road traffic in Austria, France and Switzerland
A recent health impact assessment of air pollution in Austria, France and Switzerland revealed that car-related pollution kills more people than car accidents in these three countries. Long-term exposure to air pollution from cars causes an extra 21 000 premature deaths from respiratory or heart disease per year in adults over 30. In comparison, the total annual deaths from road traffic accidents in these countries are 9 947. Each year air pollution from cars in the three countries causes 300 000 extra cases of bronchitis in children, 15 000 hospital admissions for heart disease, 395 000 asthma attacks in adults and 162 000 in children, and some 16 million person-days of restricted activities for adults over 20 years old because of respiratory disorders. The total cost of this health impact is €27 billion per year or 1.7 per cent of the combined GNP of the three countries. This is the equivalent of €360/person/year (Kunzli and others 2000).

The main sectors and activities driving air pollution in Western Europe in the past three decades have been energy, transport, industry, agriculture, solvent use, and storage and distribution of fossil fuels. In Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, the power and heavy industry sectors have traditionally been the major polluters, with transport only significant in major cities. In the early 1990s, economic recession was a driver in the decrease of air pollution in CEE but at the same time there was a sharp growth in the use of private cars. For example, even during the worst recession years (1990 to 1994), the number of private cars in Armenia, Russia and Ukraine increased by more than 100 per cent (FSRFHEM 1996). This rapid increase in private car ownership has made transport an increasingly important contributor to CEE’s air quality problems.

SO2 emissions in EMEP countries (million tonnes/year)

Over the period 1980–98, SO2 emissions in countries that are members of the Co-operative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transmission of Air Pollutants in Europe (EMEP) have been reduced by 56 percent

Source: Vestreng and Støren 2000

Emissions of most key air pollutants have declined over the whole of Europe since the early 1980s. By the end of 2000, emissions of sulphur compounds had been reduced to less than one-third of 1980 levels in Western Europe, and to two-thirds of those levels in CEE (EEA 2001a, UNEP 1999). A significant recovery of natural acid balance of water and soils has been observed in Europe, mainly due to reductions in SO2 emissions, although the emissions are still too high to avoid serious effects in sensitive ecosystems. Average figures, however, mask a wide variation among countries and sub-regions. For instance, SO2 emissions increased by 7 per cent in Greece and 3 per cent in Portugal between 1990 and 1998 while reductions of 71 per cent and 60 per cent were observed in Germany and Finland respectively (EEA 2000). NOx and NH3 emissions have not decreased significantly in Western Europe except for NOx in Germany and the United Kingdom but NOx has been reduced in many CEE countries (Czech Environmental Institute and Ministry of the Environment 1996, EEA 2001b, GRID-Budapest 1999, GRID-Warsaw 1998, Interstate Statistical Committee 1999, OECD 1999a, UNECE/EMEP/MSC 1998). A lack of monitoring of emissions of heavy metals, POPs and SPM, especially in CEE countries, means that no convincing trends can be observed but it is clear that particulate matter and tropospheric ozone precursors still represent serious problems (EEA 2000).

SO2 emissions (1 000 tonnes): linking policy to emission reductions in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, a shift in fuel from oil to natural gas produced a net decrease in SO2 emissions until the mid-1980s when greater use of coal reversed the trend. Since 1983, the sulphur content of coal has been reduced, while flue gas desulphurization units began to be fitted to Dutch power plants in 1986, with 96 per cent equipped by 1996

Note: the reference line above is based on electricity produced

Source: EEA 2000

In Western Europe, emissions of SO2, NOx and NH3 have shown a clear de-coupling from GDP growth, pointing towards some degree of effectiveness of measures taken (EEA 2001a). In some of the CEE countries that are likely to be in the first wave of accession to the European Union (EU), economic restructuring and environmental actions also appear to have had an effect in reducing air pollution. In other CEE countries, the fall in industrial output due to the recession appears to have been the main factor in air pollution reduction (OECD 1999a and b, UNECE 1999). In countries such as Russia and Ukraine, emissions per unit of GDP have actually increased but the effect has been masked by the overall fall in GDP (SCRFEP 1999).

It is clear that the reductions in emissions are at least partly due to national and local measures that have been taken to achieve targets set by CLRTAP and its Protocols, and to EU Directives linked to air emissions such as the Limitation of Emissions of Certain Pollutants into the Air from Large Combustion Plants Directive (1988) and various directives on vehicle emissions, the change to unleaded petrol and higher quality diesel fuels and improved engine design. Despite this clear progress, many air pollution reduction targets have still not been met. In Western Europe, only the EU and CLRTAP targets for SO2 were met well before the target date (the end of 2000) with less progress on NOx, NH3 and VOCs. Two recent European measures are expected to achieve further reductions in air pollutants: a proposal for an EU Directive on National Emission Ceilings for Certain Atmospheric Pollutants (NECD) and the CLRTAP Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone. In many European countries, additional measures will be required to achieve the NECD and CLRTAP Protocol targets. In Western Europe ‘non-technical’ measures for controlling pollution such as road pricing and tax incentives have become more important (EC 2000) but in many CEE countries it is unlikely that currently weak environmental protection bodies can enforce an effective air pollution reduction strategy in the near future (OECD 1999b).