Clean air is essential to our health and to the environment. But since the industrial revolution, the quality of the air we breathe has deteriorated considerably - mainly as a result of human activities. Rising industrial and energy production, the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, as well as the dramatic rise in traffic on our roads all contribute to air pollution in our towns and cities which, in turn, can lead to serious problems for both health and the environment.
The human toll for poor air quality is worse than for road traffic accidents, making it the number one environmental cause of premature death in Europe, with over 400 000 premature deaths every year. It also impacts on quality of life by causing or exacerbating asthma and respiratory problems. Air pollution causes lost working days, and high healthcare costs, with vulnerable groups such as children, asthmatics and the elderly the worst affected. It damages ecosystems through excess nitrogen pollution (eutrophication) and acid rain.
To counter this, the European Union has set itself the goal to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment. Since the early 1970s, the EU has been working to improve air quality by controlling emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere, improving fuel quality, and by integrating environmental protection requirements into the transport and energy sectors.
As a result, much progress has been made in tackling air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and benzene. Yet, and despite the progress made to date, poor air quality continues to cause serious and avoidable problems. As a next step towards improving air quality, the European Commission adopted in 2013 a Clean Air Policy Package, including a Clean Air Programme for Europe setting objectives for 2020 and 2030, and accompanying legislative measures.