Air pollution in Europe


Illustration by Una Rebić/Pod črto

Europe has a pervasive and widespread problem: air pollution. Using satellite data from the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, we found that nearly all of the continent’s inhabitants live in cities with air pollution exceeding WHO recommended limits, leading to severe health issues. Which regions are the most affected? What are authorities doing to tackle the problem?

This EDJNet investigation, conducted and coordinated by Deutsche Welle, seeks to answer these and other questions.

Main findings:

  • In 2022, 98% of Europe’s population lived in areas with fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentrations exceeding WHO’s limits, set to 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The most polluted regions in Europe reach annual average PM 2.5 concentrations of about 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
  • Pollution levels vary across Europe, with Eastern Europe, the Po Valley in Italy, and major cities like Athens, Barcelona, and Paris experiencing severe pollution.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Ukraine and Italy are the countries with the worst air quality, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Estonia those with the best.
  • The European Union is considering new air quality rules that propose an annual average concentration of 10 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter of air. This would still fall short of WHO recommendations.
  • Efforts to limit emissions in some countries, such as Italy, are insufficient. Weak measures against car emissions, residential heating, and factories do not combat the problem effectively. Other countries such as Poland, on the other hand, has seen improvements: pollution levels have steadily decreased since 2018. Cities like Krakow have witnessed significant drops thanks to a plan to modernize old household heating systems. The ban on burning coal and wood for heating has also helped.
  • Bridging the gap between science and daily life and changing the perception of the issue is one of the main challenges. Many still don’t realize the intangible impact of air pollution, but a 2022 Eurobarometer survey shows a growing awareness of the issue among Europeans.


The data unit

Rodrigo Menegat Schuinski (Deutsche Welle, coordinator) Rodrigo Menegat Schuinski is a Brazilian data journalist working at Deutsche Welle, where he mainly covers issues related to the crisis of democracy. He has worked for the Folha de S. Paulo and Estadão.

EDJNet members which took part in this investigation: