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Is air quality improving? A perspective on Germany, the EU, the United States and the rest of the world

The impact of poor air quality is well-documented and widely researched. While it is an ongoing issue that is currently being addressed through various legislations and guidelines all over the world, are our efforts actually clearing the air we breathe? 

Is air quality improving in Germany?

Germany currently follows the 2008 EU Air Quality Directive set by the European Commission. Air pollution control in the country gained traction in the 1990s after the reunification of the country. Since then, air pollution emissions have been on a decline. Between 1990 and 2018, ammonia (NH3) emissions declined by 16%, particulate matter (PM) emissions dropped by 55%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions fell by 59%, and sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions shrunk by 95%. Specifically, ammonia levels remain too high and are nowhere close to achieving EU targets. In 2019, compliance thresholds of PM were met across the country. Ozone (O3) pollution levels, however, remained at the same level as the past 20 years in 2019, with a fear of it increasing due to increased heat waves caused by climate change.

Overall, pollution levels are still considered to be too high in many German cities. In 2017, the federal government launched an initiative called “Sofortprogramm Saubere Luft in partnership with states and municipalities to improve air quality in cities. The main aim is the electrification of vehicles and urban transportation alongside efforts such as promoting cycling and improving the logistics of traffic flow.

Despite the aforementioned improvements, current emissions still have an impact on human health. The European Commission is conducting a revision of current limit values for the EU to better match the more stringent recommendations set by the World Health Organization.

Is air quality improving in the European Union?

In 2013, the European Commission adopted a Clean Air Policy Package aiming to achieve existing air quality legislation by 2020 and further improving air quality by 2030. This included an updated National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive with emission reduction commitments of five major pollutants applicable to all member states: ammonia (NH3), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), and sulphur dioxide (SO2). 

In 2018, the EU collectively met the 2010 emission ceilings set by the previous NEC Directive for NH3, NOx, NMVOCs, and SO2. However, more work has to be done for member states in order to meet 2030 reduction commitments on NOx emissions. In addition, more than half of the member states will need to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by over 30%, and NH3 reduction remains a challenge for 25 member states.

Is air quality improving in the United States?

In the United States, the Clean Air Act of 1970 authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for the purpose of protecting public health while regulating air pollutant emissions from mobile and stationary sources. Since then, combined emissions of the six main pollutants covered by the Act – carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), coarse particulate matter (PM10), sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and lead (Pb) – have dropped by 74%

Despite this, ~82 million people across the states were still living in counties with pollution levels above NAAQS standards in 2019. In addition, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that PM pollution specifically worsened in 2017 and 2018. The reasons identified were increases in driving and natural gas use along with wildfires in the West. As a result, the 5.5% increase in PM pollution has been associated with ~10,000 premature deaths.

Is air quality improving or worsening in other countries around the world?

Despite the improvements in air quality in Europe and the US, air pollution is in fact increasing in other areas of the world. According to the World Health Organization, 9 out of 10 people are breathing air with high concentration of air pollutants, resulting in 7 million deaths every year. Trend-wise, between 1960 and 2009 PM2.5 concentrations went up by 38% due to extensive economic growth and limited emission controls from China and India. As a result, deaths from PM2.5 pollution increased by 124% in the same time period. 

While air pollution is a global issue, it disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries, with the highest PM2.5 concentrations found in Central, Eastern Southern, and South-Eastern Asia in 2016. In addition, high PM2.5 levels were observed in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa resulting from sand and desert dust. This is concerning due to the magnitude of the concentration and the capacity of desert dust to be transported around the globe, and levels are expected to rise as a result of climate change

How can air quality be improved?

Taking Europe and the US as an example, it is evident that the most surefire way to improve air quality is to enact policies relating to clean energy, transport, power generation, energy-efficient housing, and waste management. That alone isn’t enough, however. In order to truly evaluate the effectiveness of government regulations, proper monitoring and trend analyses are vital. 

At Breeze Technologies, we offer real-time and historic air quality data derived through machine learning and big data technologies that can be compared to national and international standards. Our sensors and technology can be used across various sectors at urban, regional, national, and international levels, thus supporting interventions for our health, our climate, our economy, and our future. 

Find out more about what we do here.