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Air quality monitoring – a major challenge for a major health concern

Air quality monitoring – a major challenge for a major health concern

Air pollution is responsible for over 500,000 premature deaths in a single year in Europe. This may be surprising – it’s usually China and India that make the headlines on the subject of air pollution. But according to the latest numbers from the European Environment Agency (EEA) we should also be looking closer to home: in 2014 alone, 534,471 premature deaths across 41 European countries have been linked to air pollution.

Vehicle traffic is responsible for much of the damage from fine particulate matter capable of entering the lungs, although nitrogen dioxide and smog from power plants, industry, and households also contribute significantly to emissions across Europe. A staggering 1.3 trillion euros is the economic cost of the premature deaths and of the diseases caused by air pollution in the WHO European Region in 2010, according to the first-ever study of these costs conducted for the Region. The amount is nearly equivalent to one tenth of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire European Union in 2013.

While numbers have improved slightly, a staggering 85% of people in urban areas within the EU are exposed to higher levels of particulate matter than are deemed safe by the World Health Organisation, the EEA has established.

"As a society, we should not accept the cost of air pollution,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx. "It is encouraging to see that many European governments and specifically cities are showing leadership in protecting people's health by improving air quality."

Never before has it been more important to monitor air pollution levels and ensure this information is shared so that efficient action can be taken. Copernicus, the European Union’s earth observation programme, is working with public authorities and policymakers to provide data to form new policies, as well as responding quickly and efficiently in the event of a climate emergency.

There is a lot that European countries can do to limit air pollution in major cities. “For a long time, air quality information was confined to specialists. But there is now more appetite from the general public also to have access to this information,” says Vincent-Henri Peuch, head of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. “The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service provides data and analysis so that national and local authorities can take informed action, taking into account the wider European context and medium- to long-range transport of pollution.”

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European city authorities have long been aware of the importance of air quality, and networks have been established to monitor the levels of several regulatory pollutants. Increasingly, forecast information is now becoming available in cities to warn citizens about upcoming events. There is, for instance, the AirText service, which is operational in London in the UK, and, more recently, in Riga, Latvia: this is a smartphone app and text service, which alerts registered users if pollution thresholds are expected to be reached, so that they can take appropriate action, particularly by reducing their exposure. It is done by combining the information provided by Copernicus on a regional level with information about local sources of pollution. “This is a good example of what we want to achieve: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service helps design effective systems to inform people about the air they are breathing in their local area,” says Vincent-Henri Peuch.

To further help to inform the public and to raise awareness, in December 2017 Copernicus joined forces with euronews to launch a daily exclusive sixty-second air quality forecast. Broadcast four times a day on euronews’ ten language channels, an animated map of Europe shows Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) air quality data for major European cities, with an index from 1 to 5 (very good to very poor). Watched by more than 10 million viewers since its launch, this exclusive forecast is also available on the weather section in 12 languages.

The Head of Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service points out that people are already familiar with weather forecasts, but air quality forecasting is different: “With the weather there is nothing you can do to change it, but you can take action to improve air quality. People can choose to use public transportation and reduce the number of cars on the roads; authorities can enforce actions to abate certain emissions sources on a given day in order to reduce the severity of an episode.”

While air pollution remains a serious problem across Europe, the increasing focus on monitoring and improving the situation is encouraging. The sector is developing fast, and dozens of applications are becoming available that cover specific cities or even the whole of Europe or the entire world. In Belgium, Vito has developed an air quality modelling framework that aids urban planners, while in Lithuania, an innovative forecasting tool is being fine-tuned to detect allergy symptoms. In Germany, Heich Consult is using data from Copernicus to develop an app that informs people about the air quality in cities. The service mixes up-to-date information with historical data, drawing on numerous sources to provide relevant day-to-day information, initially for the people of Brno. This summer in Greece, the DiscovAir programme will provide integrated weather, UV, pollen and air quality information for tourists so that they can better enjoy their stay in the country and organise their activities in the best possible way.

While these developments are encouraging, there is still work to be done. Combining the efforts of local monitoring services with global data and insight from providers like Copernicus is already producing effective solutions. Empowering policy makers and the general public with these tools ensures that we can take effective action to improve air quality in the future.