European Geosciences Union

EGU logo

Air Quality

Credit: ‘Measuring atmospheric pollution in Beijing, China (II)’ by Aristeidis Georgoulias (distributed via

Poor air quality is detrimental to human health and the environment. Urban and agricultural areas are the most affected by poor air quality. Common effects of air pollution include respiratory illnesses, decreased vegetation, and reduced biodiversity. The European Environment Agency states it is “Europe’s top environmental risk factor of premature death”.

The major pollutants damaging to human health are Ozone (O3), Particulate matter (PM), Benzol(a)pyrene (BaP) and nitrous oxides (NOx). Pollutants which are more detrimental to ecosystems are Ozone, Ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxides (NOx). Sources are both natural and anthropogenic. Pollutants from natural sources exist, e.g. dust/sand and some volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause or amplify poor air quality. The major pollutant sources are listed below:

  • Fossil fuels from energy generation, transport, industry & households
  • Industrial processes
  • Agricultural processes
  • Waste treatment

In urban populations, ozone exposure has remained relatively stable over the past decade whereas PM and NOx have been decreasing. Conversely, BaP has been increasing in recent years and all major pollutants still break European and WHO exposure limits. Air quality is currently estimated to reduce life expectancy by eight months.

In addition to this, some air pollutants are known to impact climate change through regional and global impacts. These pollutants can contribute to both atmospheric warming (as greenhouse gases) and cooling (through cloud ‘seeding effects’). Cloud seeding increases cloud coverage. It causes more sunlight to be reflected away from the Earth and can cause changes in precipitation patterns.

Current EU policy:

European policy is well established in this area which has resulted in an overall decrease of air pollutant emissions and air quality has thus improved. In December 2013 a proposed strategy named the Clean Air Package was adopted which features various policy strategies to reduce air pollution. These include new directives introducing stricter national emission ceilings, targeting a reduction of pollution from medium-sized combustion installations, and providing finical support for research and development. These policies aim to prevent 58 000 deaths by 2030 and 123 000 km2 of ecosystems from nitrogen pollution.

Future challenges:

Although thorough policies and legislation are in place on the European level to tackle air quality, further scientific research in this area is still necessary. Major areas include; further identification of PM, source attributions, continual monitoring, and impact modelling studies.

EGU air quality research areas:

  • Aerosol identification & quantification techniques
  • Global, regional and local scale air quality modelling
  • Mitigation scenario modelling
  • Urban vs. rural air quality
  • Geoengineering
  • Climate impacts i.e. hydrological cycle changes

Recent EGU papers in air quality:


If you have a comment or suggestion, or if you would like more information please email

[ Back ]