38,000 air pollution-related deaths avoided in Europe in 2020, as fossil fuel burning dropped

[Click here to see the full report]

COVID-19 control measures and increases in renewable energy caused a steep drop in fossil fuel burning in Europe in 2020. This led to an approximately 14% reduction in average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, 7% reduction in average level of particulate matter pollution, and 4% in ozone levels, resulting in an estimated 37,813 avoided deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 31,894 – 44,226) in Europe.

Other avoided health impacts include 10.0 million fewer days of work absence, 17,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children, 29,000 avoided emergency room visits due to asthma attacks and 4,700 fewer preterm births. Most of these health impacts are linked to chronic air pollution exposure and will be realized with a delay over the coming months and years.

This effect comes as renewable energy overtook fossil fuels for the first time in power generation, producing 38% of all energy in the EU, compared with 37% from fossil fuels. Coal consumption for power generation fell by 20% in 2020 compared with 2019 and oil demand for transportation fell by 13% in January-November 2020. Coal and oil burning are the main sources of NO2 pollution and key sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe.

The health impact analysis also highlights how, regardless of improved air quality, air pollution is contributing to the load on the healthcare system at the time of the epidemic — because of air pollution there are more people suffering from pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease, and more people requiring treatment for everything from asthma to stroke and diabetes while the system is overburdened.

The countries with the largest reductions in NO2 pollution levels are the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Sweden. The largest reductions in particulate matter pollution took place in Serbia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The projected avoided health impacts are the largest in Germany, Poland, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Among European main cities, Rome, Paris, Zagreb, Athens, Lisbon and Warsaw are the cities where adverse health impacts have been reduced the most.

The new analysis uses detailed air quality statistical modeling to control for the effects of weather conditions and attribute the changes in pollution levels to the changes in emissions.

Air pollution is the largest environmental health threat in Europe, with the average life expectancy in the European Union shortened by an estimated eight months due to pollution exposure. In 2018, 417,000 deaths in the European region were attributed to PM2.5, 55,000 deaths to NO2 and 20,600 to ground-level Ozone (EEA, 2020). An estimated 60% of the population in high-income European countries is exposed to levels of PM10 or PM2.5 that exceed WHO guidelines, and 80% of the population in lower- or middle-income countries in Europe (WHO, 2018).  

The COVID-19 crisis has brought about untold human suffering, and its side-effects should not be celebrated. The major public health benefits of reduced coal and oil burning, over 2020, are however a striking demonstration of the benefit to public health and quality of life if European decision-makers prioritize clean air, clean energy and clean transport in their plans to recover from the crisis, and reduce coal and oil consumption in a rapid and sustainable way.

The full report is available here.