Quality of life indicators - natural and living environment
Data from September 2022
Planned article update: September 2024
In 2020, almost 1 in 5 city dwellers in the EU reported grime, pollution or other environmental problems in their local area, compared to less than 1 in 10 in rural areas.
In 2020, more than 1 in 6 persons in the EU reported a concern over noise pollution from neighbours.
Population reporting noise from neighbours or from the street, by degree of urbanisation, 2020
This article is part of a Eurostat online publication that focuses on quality of life indicators, providing recent statistics for the European Union (EU). The publication presents a detailed analysis of various dimensions that can form the basis of a deeper analysis of the quality of life, complementing gross domestic product (GDP) which has traditionally been used to provide a general overview of the economic situation and social developments.
This article focuses on the eighth dimension — natural and living environment — of the nine dimensions of the quality of life indicators that form part of a framework endorsed by an expert group on quality of life indicators. Although the environment is usually discussed within the context of sustainability, it is equally important for an individual’s quality of life. Environmental conditions not only affect human health and well-being directly, but also indirectly, as they may have adverse effects on ecosystems, biodiversity, or even more extreme consequences such as natural disasters or industrial accidents. Many Europeans have become increasingly vocal about their desire to enjoy the benefits that a high-quality environment can offer, from basic rights such as the provision of clean water to more intangible aspects such as noise-free residential and work environments or easy access to nature and green spaces.
Environmental indicators are relatively abundant: however, they are often too specific to assess their direct impact on the individual’s quality of life. That said, some environmental indicators, especially those that analyse an individual’s assessment of their environment, might provide valuable information in this respect. The information below presents indicators for self-reported exposure to pollution, grime and noise. These aspects are also examined from the perspective of potential links between the risk of poverty and exposure to such environmental conditions, bearing in mind that people at risk of poverty often live in areas characterised by environmental issues and that these issues may, in turn, impact their quality of life (for example, by affecting their health or by decreasing the value of the property in which they live).
- In the EU, self-reported exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems decreased by 1.9 percentage points between 2011 and 2020.
- In 2020, people living in cities were more likely than people in rural areas to face exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems as well as noise in all EU Member States.
- In 2020, the share of people at risk of poverty in the EU who experienced environmental problems was on average 2 % higher than the share of the total population regarding pollution and grime and 3 % higher than the share of the total population regarding noise pollution.
- In 2020, more than one in six people in the EU reported a concern over noise pollution from neighbours or from the street, with the highest shares reported in Malta (30.8 % of total population concerned), the Netherlands (25.5 %), Portugal (25.1 %) and Spain (21.9 %).
Exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems
On average, 13.7 % of the EU population declared they had been exposed to pollution, grime or environmental problems, ranging from 31.6 % in Malta to 5.5 % in Croatia in 2020
There is evidence to suggest that environmental problems and pollution are associated with lower levels of subjective well-being. The share of the EU population that reported that they had been exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems showed a slight decrease from 15.6 % in 2011 to 13.7 % in 2020 (see Figure 1).
This average, however, conceals considerable variations between different EU Member States. In 2020, as in recent years, Malta recorded by far the highest share (31.6 %) of its population reporting that they had been exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems, while the next highest shares were recorded in Greece (20.2 %) and France (18.6 %). Two Baltic Member States (Lithuania and Latvia), as well as Slovenia, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland also recorded rates of exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems that were above the EU average. At the other end of the range, Croatia, Sweden and Austria recorded the lowest exposure rates to pollution, grime or other environmental problems (5.5 %, 5.9 % and 7.9 % of their populations, respectively).
In 2020, the self-reported risk of being exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems was higher than the average for the total population among people at risk of poverty (see Figure 2); 15.7 % of the EU population at risk of poverty faced these problems, which was 2.0 percentage points (p.p.) above the average.
This pattern of greater exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems among the population at risk of poverty was repeated in most of the Member States. In 2020, these types of risks were particularly prevalent among the population at risk of poverty in France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Hungary where the share of the population at risk of poverty exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems was 5.2-7.7 p.p. higher than that of the total population. By contrast, there were nine Member States where exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems was lower among the population at risk of poverty; including in Lithuania (5.1 p.p. lower), Romania (2.5 p.p. lower), Malta (2.3 p.p. lower) and Poland (2.1 p.p. lower). The different situations among the Member States may reflect, at least to some degree, population distributions across the various territories. For example, in some countries people at risk of poverty are concentrated in cities (where pollution, grime and other environmental problems may be greater), while in other regions it is more common to find people at risk of poverty living in rural areas (that are generally characterised by lower levels of pollution, grime and environmental problems).
Exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems by degree of urbanisation
Figure 3 shows differences by degree of urbanisation for the self-reported exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems. It becomes clear that city dwellers are more likely to be affected by these problems than people living in rural areas. The difference can be quite substantial in terms of percentage points reaching 31.5 p.p. in Greece, 17.7 p.p. in France, 15.4 p.p. in Italy and 15.0 p.p. in Malta (difference computed between cities and towns/suburbs). The least difference between people living in cities and those living in rural areas was observed in Luxembourg (0.2 p.p.), Estonia (0.5 p.p.), Slovakia (2.4 p.p.) and Cyprus (2.6 p.p.).
In several countries, the share of city dwellers reporting exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems was more than 1 in 4 persons: in Greece 35.3 % reported to be exposed, in Malta 33.3 % and in France 28.1 %. A total of eight Member States had more than 20 % of their city population declaring that they had been affected by environmental problems and fifteen more countries between 10 and 20 %. Only four EU countries had less than 10 % of their city population reporting exposure to pollution, grime or other environmental problems. These were Croatia (7.7 %), Sweden (8.7 %), Estonia (8.7 %) and Cyprus (9.8 %). As regards the rural population, seven Member States had 10 % or more of their respective population exposed to environmental problems. The highest rates were in Slovenia (12.9 %) and Lithuania (12.7 %), while in Croatia, Sweden and Greece as little as 2.4 %, 3.0 % and 3.8 %, respectively, of the population living in rural areas reported being exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems.
Noise pollution from neighbours or from the street
17.6 % of the EU population declared they had been exposed to noise pollution from neighbours or the street in 2020, 2.1 p.p. lower than in 2011
Noise pollution provides one measure of the effect that noise may have on an individual’s quality of life. It is formally defined as exposure to ambient sound levels that are beyond usual comfort levels. It can have serious direct and indirect health effects, for example, leading to hypertension, high stress levels, sleeping disorders and, in extreme cases, tinnitus or hearing loss. The information that follows is based on self-reported disturbance from noise originating from neighbours or the street.
In 2011, about one fifth (19.7 %) of the EU population reported exposure to noise pollution that was beyond their comfort levels (see Figure 4). In 2020, this share was 17.6 %, a decrease of 2.1 p.p. from 2011.
Across the Member States, in 2020, the share of the population reporting noise from neighbours or from the street was the highest in Malta (30.8 %), the Netherlands (25.5 %) and Portugal (25.1 %). The lowest share of the population reporting noise was in Estonia (8.0 %), Croatia (8.1 %) and Bulgaria (8.8 %).
More than one fifth (21.3 %) of the population at risk of poverty reported to be exposed to noise from neighbours or from the street in 2020. People at risk of poverty were, on average, 3.7 p.p. more likely to suffer from noise in the EU. This was the case in most of the Member States, with the biggest differences reported in France (12.4 p.p.), the Netherlands (11.8 p.p.) and Denmark (9.6 p.p.). There were seven Member States where noise exposure of the population at risk did not exceed the share reported by the total population, notably Malta (where the population at risk of poverty reported 2.4 p.p. less noise exposure than the total population), Estonia (1.9 p.p. less) and Croatia (1.6 p.p. less).
Noise pollution from neighbours or from the street by degree of urbanisation
In 2020, 23.9 % of people living in cities reported noise from neighbours or from the street across the EU compared to 16.3 % in towns and suburbs and 10.5 % in rural areas (see Figure 6).
There were four Member States where more than 30 % of city dwellers were affected by the problem, in particular Greece (33.1 %), Malta (32.0 %), the Netherlands (30.4 %) and France (30.2 %). The population living in the cities of Estonia (8.6 %), Croatia (9.3 %) and Slovakia (10.5 %) reported the least noise. Everywhere in the EU, EFTA and EU candidate countries, city dwellers suffered more from street noise than people living in rural areas. The difference in reported noise pollution was highest in Greece (27.7 p.p.), followed by France (19.4 p.p.) and the Netherlands (15.8 p.p.). In eight further Member States the differences were above 10 p.p. and in Malta the value in cities was 10.5 p.p. higher than in towns and suburbs (no data for rural areas available). The smallest differences were reported in Estonia (2.0 p.p.) and Slovakia (2.3 p.p.).
Source data for tables and graphs
Most of the data used in this article are derived from EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC). An individual’s quality of life is predominantly affected by inherently local environmental factors: as such, an effective analysis of the quality of life can be provided through surveys that collect information based on self-reporting of subjectively perceived environmental issues, rather than aggregated measures of environmental conditions (air pollution or emissions).
The natural and living environment dimension of the quality of life framework refers to environmental aspects that effect an individual’s quality of life. Environmental conditions affect human health, well-being and other quality of life aspects, both directly, for instance through pollution, and indirectly, for example, by having an impact on property prices that could in turn affect an individual’s economic prosperity. At the same time, growing environmental awareness means that an increasing share of the EU’s population values their rights to access (often intangible) environmental resources.
The EU’s seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) provided guidance for the EU’s environment policy until 2020, as well as a more long-term vision until 2050. Its key objectives are to: protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital; turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green and competitive, low-carbon economy; while safeguarding EU citizens from environmental pressures that present a risk to health and well-being. Within its action programme, the EU has committed to reduce noise pollution considerably: for example, by changes to the way that cities are designed or reducing noise at source. The Environmental Noise Directive (Directive 0049/2002/EC) is the EU’s main policy instrument to assess and manage environmental noise; it does not apply to noise from domestic activities, created by neighbours, at work places or inside means of transport.
Direct access to
- Material deprivation (t_ilc_md)
- Environment of the dwelling (t_ilc_mddw)
- Goal 3 — Good health and well-being (sdg_03)
- Goal 11 — Sustainable cities and communities (sdg_11)
- Goal 12 — Responsible consumption and production (sdg_12)
- Goal 13 — Climate action (sdg_13)
- Material deprivation (ilc_md)
- Environment of the dwelling (ilc_mddw)
- EU-SILC ad-hoc modules (ilc_ahm)
- 2014 — Material deprivation (ilc_mdm)
- 2013 — Personal well-being indicators (ilc_pwb)
- 2012 — Housing conditions (ilc_hcm)