Quality of life indicators - natural and living environment

Data from October 2013. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.

This article is part of the Eurostat online publication Quality of life indicators, providing recent statistics on the quality of life in the European Union (EU). The publication presents a detailed analysis of many different dimensions of quality of life, complementing the indicator traditionally used as the measure of economic and social development, gross domestic product (GDP).

The present article focuses on the eighth dimension of the '8+1' quality of life indicators framework, natural and living environment. The environment, while usually discussed in the context of sustainability, is equally important for the quality of life of individuals. Environmental conditions not only affect human health and well-being directly, but also indirectly, through adverse effects on ecosystems and biodiversity or even more drastically by causing natural disasters or industrial accidents. Citizens also have become increasingly aware of their right to an environment of sufficiently high quality, from the basics like clean water to more derived aspects like noise-free residential and work areas or access to nature and green spaces.

Due to their importance in other contexts, environmental indicators are relatively abundant. They are often too specific or focused on the natural environment, however, to be of much use in a quality-of-life perspective. But some provide valuable information, especially when combined with self-reported quality of one's household environment. The analysis below combines self-reports on exposure to pollution, grime and noise with measures by the European Environmental Agency of urban populations' exposure to particulate matter. Since environmental factors often affect economic choices (of one's residence, for instance) and vice versa, and thus have an impact on inequality and risk of poverty, this interdependence is also examined.

Figure 1: Exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems at EU-27 level, over time (% of total population reporting exposure to this type of problems)
Source: Eurostat, EU-SILC (ilc_mddw02)
Map 1: Share of population suffering from pollution, grime or other environmental problems, 2011 (%), Source: Eurostat, EU-SILC (ilc_mddw02)
Figure 2: Exposure to air pollution, grime or other environmental problems by income situation, 2011 (%)
Source: Eurostat, EU-SILC (ilc_mddw02)
Figure 3: Urban population exposure to air pollution by particulate matter, EU-28 level, over time (Micrograms per cubic metre)
Source: Eurostat, EEA (tsdph370)
Figure 4: Urban population exposure to air pollution by particulate matter, 2005 and 2011 (Micrograms per cubic metre)
Source: Eurostat, EEA (tsdph370)
Figure 5: Share of population reporting noise from neighbours or from the street by income situation, 2011 (%)
Source: Eurostat, EU-SILC (ilc_mddw01)

Main statistical findings

Natural and living environment in the context of quality of life

The environment affects the quality of life people enjoy (or not). Environmental conditions affect human health and well-being, both directly, for instance through pollution, and indirectly, for instance through adverse effects on ecosystems, biodiversity or even natural disasters and industrial accidents. People increasingly value their rights to have access to environmental resources and services. These range from basics, such as clean water (already declared an essential human right by the United Nations [1]), to more elaborate amenities, such as open-air recreational spaces and noise-free space in which to live and work. People take such environmental factors into account in their choices, for instance, when deciding where to live. They may decide to pay more for a house in a pleasant environment, or live out of town to enjoy a good environment, though this involves higher commuting expenses. Environmental factors indirectly affect other quality of life aspects, including economic prosperity and inequality. For instance, they directly affect the price of housing and other property.

Monitoring the environment is important, so there is already an abundance of environmental indicators. However, since these indicators are often designed to provide either aggregate measurements of specific factors (such as total emissions of pollutants over time periods) or quantitative measures of their direct impact on the natural environment itself, their usefulness from a quality of life perspective is rather limited. What we need is, for instance, measures of people’s exposure to various adverse environmental factors, such as pollution (for example particulate matter in the case of city dwellers). Quality of life is predominantly affected by inherently local environmental factors, so self-reporting of the subjectively perceived quality of the environment provides more insight than aggregate overall measurements of pollutants or emissions.

Below we analyse measures of self-reported exposure to pollution, grime and other environmental problems; and noise as well as exposure of urban populations to air pollution by particulate matter (as technically measured by the European Environmental Agency). The quality of the immediate living environment, especially in urban settings, often depends on economic factors (such as housing conditions and property prices) and vice versa. So this indicator may also be a proxy to measure inequality and risk of poverty. That is why we also examine this interdependence.

Exposure to pollution, grime and other environmental problems

There is undisputed proof that environmental problems and pollution are associated with lower subjective well-being. Interestingly enough, this applies even after controlling for income[2][3]. On average in the EU-27, the share of people who report that they have been exposed to pollution, grime and other environmental problems dropped from 17.6 % in 2005 to 15.2 % in 2011 (see Figure 1).

This average, however, conceals significant variations between different countries. In 2011, Malta was an extreme case (41.4 %), and exposure in Greece, Germany and Latvia was significantly higher than the EU-28 average, in the range of 20.0 % to 25.0 %). Countries situated mostly in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania) had above-average exposure to pollution, as did Italy, Belgium and Cyprus (see Map 1). At the other end of the spectrum, Scandinavian countries, as well Spain and Croatia reported exposure to pollution well below the average (lower than 10.0 %), while in Ireland, a mere 4 % of the population reported having this type of problem. While in the EU-28 as a whole, those at risk of poverty, are not on the whole exposed to more serious pollution and other environmental problems than the rest of the population there are several cases in which the difference between income groups is quite significant.

Thus, in several western European countries (including among others Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, UK, and Austria) as well as Bulgaria and Hungary, the population at risk of poverty is considerably more exposed to pollution than the average population (and at more or less comparable levels in most other countries). But the opposite is true (Figure 2 in Malta, Greece, Romania, and Lithuania). Those at risk of poverty actually encounter fewer environmental problems than the total population on average. This may be because of structural differences and dominant economic activities in these economies, which reflect the specific kind of environmental problems in each country, but also indirectly determine a more urban or more rural population at risk of poverty. There are countries where the population at risk of poverty tends to be located in urban areas with more environmental problems, while elsewhere, that category of population mostly lives in thinly populated rural areas with fewer environmental problems.

Urban population exposure to air pollution by particulate matter

Research has shown that the concentration of air pollutants, such as ozone or particulate matter[4], in the area where a person lives adversely affects their self-reported life satisfaction and subjective well-being. Empirical research confirms that the level of air pollution is in fact statistically significant as a predictor of inter-country or inter-temporal differences in overall life satisfaction. Air quality is the result of a complex mixture of pollutants and a composite aggregate index is not yet available. However, the concentration of fine particulates is nevertheless considered to be an adequate proxy.

The concentration of fine particulates (i.e. those with a diameter of less than 10μ, also referred to as PM10) in ambient air is a particular case. These particulate matters consist of very small floating liquid and solid particles and originate from a variety of sources, [5] from diesel engines and wood-stoves to coal fuelled power plants. They can be dangerous to health, especially for people with heart and lung diseases, as they are small enough to be carried into the lungs [6] and cause inflammation. An EU Directive (1999) and another (2008) [7] seeking to limit the amount of pollutants in ambient air, set an upper limit at the level of 40 micrograms of PM10 per cubic meter of air, while a new guideline limit of 20 μg/m3 was set in 2010 by the World Health Organisation.

In 2011, city dwellers in the EU-28 were on average potentially exposed to 27 micrograms of PM10 per cubic meter (Figure 3). Following a substantial drop in the EU average concentration of particulate matter in 1997, the values of the indicator have consistently fluctuated around an almost steady level. Data has not been available for some Member States (Greece, Denmark, Croatia and Malta), but in 2011, in most other Member States, the exposure of city dwellers to air pollution by particulate matter exceeded the WHO’s 20 μg/m3 threshold. The exceptions were Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Estonia, Finland and Denmark, where the concentration was below this threshold. Moreover, in a number of Member States, the exposure of city dwellers to air pollution by PM10 rose between 2005 and 2011, especially in Bulgaria (by 8 μg/m3), France(by 5 μg/m3), Poland (4 μg/m3) and Ireland (2 μg/m3). At the other end of the spectrum, exposure went down substantially in Spain (by 11 μg/m3), Romania (by 10 μg/m3), Estonia (8 μg/m3) and Italy (by 7 μg/m3) (see Figure 4). These changes over time should be interpreted with some caution, as the number of stations measuring the concentration of pollutants and their location changed in some of the countries.

Noise pollution from neighbours or from the street

Noise pollution is formally defined as exposure to ambient sound levels beyond comfort levels. It can have serious direct as well as indirect health effects -- hypertension, high stress levels, sleeping disturbances and, in extreme cases, even hearing loss. Stress and hypertension have been reported as the leading causes of a host of health problems [8]. Since levels of ambient noise fluctuate, depending on the specific local conditions and time, self-reporting of perceived disturbance from noise in the living environment (i.e. from neighbours or from the street) provides a representative picture of the impact of noise on the quality of life.

In 2011, about 20.0 % of the EU-28 population reported perceived exposure to noise pollution defined as above (Figure 5). As much as 30.4 % of the population in Malta suffered from noise pollution, while other reportedly highly-affected populations were those in Romania (28.0 %), Cyprus (27.5 %), Germany (25.8 %), Greece (25.1 %), the Netherlands (23.6 %), Portugal (23.1 %) and Italy (20.8 %). At the other end of the spectrum, the Irish and Hungarians are among those with fewest complaints about being exposed to noise pollution, at only 9.3 % and 9.8 % of the population respectively. Generally, those living in households at risk of poverty, almost consistently in most countries, report relatively higher exposure to noise pollution than the overall population. However, in some countries, including Romania, Cyprus, Greece, and Latvia, households below the poverty line have a relatively lower exposure to noise pollution than on average in the country. Some of the possible reasons have been discussed above.


According to data available for the EU-27, the reported exposure of people to pollution, grime and environmental problems decreased between 2005 and 2011. However, in most EU-28 countries, people at risk of poverty still report a higher than within-country average exposure to pollution. Following the implementation of EU policies and legislation, the exposure of urban populations to particulate matter has been reduced, but in most Member States it was still above the level recommended by the World Health Organisation in 2010. Noise pollution remains a concern, as in 2011, one in five citizens in the EU reported exposure to it. However, there are large variations between Member States and within them, as those at risk of poverty report relatively higher exposure in most countries.

Data sources and availability

The topic «natural and living environment» currently covers data on exposure to pollution (both self-reported and objectively measured) and to noise or other environmental problems. Most of the data used in this article are primarily derived from EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC). Measures related to satisfaction with recreational and green areas and with the immediate living environment are currently under development in SILC 2013. The Urban population exposure to air pollution by particulate matter] is a Sustainable Development Indicator (SDI). It is used for the assessment of progress towards the objectives and targets of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. It is also a Resource Efficiency Indicator, as it has been chosen as a lead indicator presented in the Resource Efficiency Scoreboard for the assessment of progress towards the objectives and targets of the Europe 2020 flagship initiative on Resource Efficiency.


The dimension «natural and living environment» of the Quality of Life Framework refers to environmental aspects of quality of life. Environmental conditions affect human health and well-being both directly and indirectly, while citizens value their rights to access environmental resources. Moreover, environmental factors indirectly affect other quality of life aspects, including economic prosperity and inequality, e.g. by directly affecting property prices and housing conditions. Recognising the importance of this dimension, The Sixth Environment Action Programme (EAP) includes environment (and within this topic air pollution) as one of the four main target areas in which more needs to be done. Reducing noise pollution is also an objective in EU policy. The Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC) is one of the main instruments to identify noise pollution levels and to trigger the necessary action both at Member State and at EU level.

See also

Further Eurostat information

Main tables

Material deprivation (t_ilc_md)
Environment of the dwelling (t_ilc_mddw)
Public Health


Material deprivation (ilc_md)
Environment of the dwelling (ilc_mddw)

Dedicated section

Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel)


  1. International Decade for Action ‘Water For Life’ 2005-2015, United Nations
  2. Welsch, H. (2002), Preferences over Welsch, H. (2002). Preferences over prosperity and pollution: Environmental valuation based on happiness studies. Kyklos, 55, 473–494.
  3. Welsch, H. (2003), Environment and happiness. Valuation of air pollution in ten European countries. German Institute for Economic Research, DIW Berlin, Discussion Papers No. 356, July.
  4. Compendium of OECD Well-Being Indicators
  5. Particulate Matter (PM-10)
  6. What is Particulate Matter?- United States Environmental Protection Agency
  7. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead in ambient air
  8. The EU Policy on environmental noise