Which is the cleanest country in Europe

Where is Europe's air cleanest?

"Smog is very tangible. You can see it, you can smell it," Andrzej Gula told DW. "People in Krakow joke that you can even bite him." Krakow people try to take it with humor, even if air pollution can kill several thousand people in Poland every year.

For Gula there are only two options how to deal with the dirty air: either you move away or you get active. He chose the latter. For six years he has been fighting with the Polish Smog Alert, the Polish Smog Alert, against air pollution in the second largest city in the country.

For many Poles, checking smog levels is now part of everyday life, as is wearing respiratory protection masks. On a few days, children and the elderly are advised to stay at home - taking a deep breath outside is too dangerous. There is a risk of headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath in addition to long-term effects such as respiratory diseases and heart problems.

The worst season is yet to come in Poland. In winter, the smog increases dramatically, as many people still traditionally heat with wood and coal. In the winter months, people's clothes stink of smog, says Gula. He compares the dirty air people breathe to smoking. Activists estimate that anyone who lives in Kraków inhales as many pollutants every year as if they were smoking 3,000 cigarettes.

Great health hazard

But the Poles are not the only ones struggling with air pollution. Billions of people around the world breathe toxic air every day. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people died from air pollution in 2016. According to this, more than 90 percent of children breathe toxic air. In Europe, around half a million people died prematurely in 2015 as a result of air pollution, calculated the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Increased particulate matter pollution is particularly dangerous for health, as the microscopic particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. Although the number of premature deaths from air pollution has steadily decreased over the past three decades, pollution levels still remain dangerous and illegally high. It is much better today than it used to be: in 1990, high levels of pollution caused almost twice as many deaths as today. However, around 90 percent of Europeans who live in cities still breathe air that is harmful to health, according to the EEA. Air pollution remains the greatest health threat in Europe.

In addition to fine dust, the air contains other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, ozone and ammonia, which are emitted by industry, road traffic, agriculture and heating. While pollutants have been reduced in almost all areas, ammonia emissions in agriculture remain high. Alberto González from the European Environment Agency is particularly concerned about this. Because when the gaseous ammonia penetrates the atmosphere and reacts with other pollutants from vehicle exhaust, new fine dust is created, the deadliest pollutant for humans.

Around 94 percent of ammonia emissions in the European Union arise in agriculture, especially in animal husbandry. There have been no major emissions reductions in agriculture since 1990. "It is very important that we finally get involved in agriculture to fight air pollution," González told DW.

Where in Europe is it unsafe to breathe?

The air is not always bad everywhere in Europe. In general, pollution levels in Central and Eastern Europe are higher than in the rest of the EU. Bulgaria has the worst air and has the highest number of premature deaths from air pollution. The main reason for this is particulate matter emissions from heating, says González.

More on deaths from pollution here: Be careful with epidemiological studies

and here: Epidemiologist: Deaths can be estimated

Poland, host of this year's climate conference in December, follows Bulgaria on the list of European countries with the worst air quality. Air pollution kills around 45,000 people every year in Poland, experts estimate. According to the WHO, 33 of the 50 dirtiest cities in Europe were in Poland last year. One of these cities is Katowice, where the climate conference will take place. In Poland, too, coal-fired and wood-fired heating systems are the main sources of smog and particulate matter emissions.

Germany is in the middle of the field. If all the data are combined, the Federal Republic of Germany will comply with the annual EU limit values ​​for fine dust pollution. But especially in cities, the air is often significantly worse. In Stuttgart, for example, 64.40 micrograms of fine dust are measured per cubic meter of air, the legal limit is 50 micrograms.

Norway, on the other hand, is the only country in Europe where the air is consistently cleaner than required by the WHO, which has stricter limit values ​​than the EU. Norway's green strategy, such as promoting clean vehicles, is paying off.

Poland exchanges dirty heaters

In some countries there is a growing awareness among the population of how dangerous polluted air is. In Poland, too, the issue of air pollution is making headlines more and more, thanks to campaigns by activists like Gula in Krakow. At the same time, pressure from the EU has led to a rethink, says Przemyslaw Hofman, head of the low-carbon economy department at the Polish Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Technology.

The Polish government now wants to do something for better air and has banned the sale of heating systems that do not meet emission standards. To this end, it is providing 25 billion euros over the next ten years so that poorer residents can also exchange their old heating systems for newer, clean heating systems.

Regional governments are even one step further. In Krakow, most coal-fired heating systems have been replaced by less polluting alternatives such as gas heating. Krakow will soon be the first city in Poland to completely ban the use of wood and coal.

Since 2013, a package of measures for clean air has been slowly improving the situation at EU level. By 2030, air pollution is to be significantly reduced and the number of premature deaths halved. This is only possible if all countries adhere to the guidelines. However, it does not look like that in many member states at the moment. In May the EU Commission sued Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Hungary and Romania for bad air in the cities.

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Faster with the bike

    As in Copenhagen, Reutlingen and Essen are planning to set up high-speed cycle routes through the city. The expansion of the bicycle road network is "overdue" anyway, says expert Christian Hochfeld from the Agora-Verkehrswende. "We notice that people are switching to bicycles, but the public space is not distributed fairly: cars that are parked are given too much space."

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Inexpensive from A to B

    Four out of five cities rely on cheap local transport. In Bonn and Reutlingen there will be annual air conditioning tickets based on the Vienna model for 365 euros, i.e. for 1 euro per day. Mannheim and Herrenberg are planning price reductions for single, multi-trip and season tickets. Expert Hochfeld agrees: "Cheaper public transport is the right way forward, but the quality still has to be assured."

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Wait less long

    How nice it is when you go to the bus stop - and bang, the next bus will come. Local transport is fun this way. Bonn therefore wants to increase the frequency of many bus routes so that waiting times at the bus stop are shorter. Reutlingen and Essen are planning the same. Hochfeld: "Increased frequency is the absolute basic requirement for people in the city centers to switch to public transport."

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    More bus stops

    We all know it: If the bus stop is too far away from the apartment or not close enough to the destination, you might prefer to use the car. Reutlingen is therefore planning a new city bus network with ten new bus routes and a hundred (!) New stops.

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    No waiting for buses

    Additional bus lanes are intended to encourage people to take the bus in Herrenberg: In the bus, you drive past all the waiting cars and are happy. Green circuits for buses are also such a means. "This means that people perceive public transport to be faster and more convenient," comments Hochfeld. "If there are 40 people on the bus, they should have priority over a single person in the car."

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Green Wave

    Stop-and-go is not only a strain on drivers' nerves, but also on the environment. When moving off, a car consumes a lot of fuel and emits a lot of exhaust gases. Herrenberg is planning a dynamic control of traffic lights so that motorists can ride the green wave. Instead of the seconds until the next red phase, it should be displayed at how many km / h there is free passage.

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Packages come with the e-bike

    Mannheim is building a "micro-hub": a transshipment point where parcels are loaded from trucks onto e-bikes. As a result, fewer delivery vans should drive into the city center. "A good addition," says Christian Hochfeld. However: "Do we want to continue to allow people to order the smallest units online, which are then delivered individually?" The expert sees a lot of catching up to do here.

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Hybrid buses

    They are already driving around in Cologne and many other cities: hybrid buses designed to reduce pollutant emissions. Mannheim now also wants to procure low-emission Euro 6 hybrid buses for the city center. Cyclists in particular, who often have to drive behind buses, will be delighted.

  • This is what five German cities are planning for better air

    Go digital

    It's no use against emissions, but it's good for the cool image of buses and trains: Many German cities already offer apps that can be used to buy eTickets for local transport quickly and without paper. Mannheim now wants to significantly expand the eTicket. Herrenberg is planning a city mobility app that will also make it easier to organize rental bicycles and car sharing.

    Author: Brigitte Osterath


Irene Banos Ruiz Travel expenses to Poland were covered by Clean Energy Wire and Forum Energii.