Despite improvements in air quality over the last two decades, Europeans today are breathing starkly different air. The western portion of the continent experiences generally cleaner air compared to the eastern part, where virtually all of the populations of Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Armenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline for particulate pollution (PM2.5). And, they’re living shorter lives because of it. In the East, Europeans could gain 6.3 more months of life expectancy than their western neighbors, if both regions were to meet the WHO guideline. If pollution were improved to meet the WHO guideline in western Europe, an average resident would gain 1.8 years of life expectancy.
The differences are even more poignant when comparing neighbors. For example, Germans are losing just months off their lives while neighboring Poles are losing a full year due to the higher level of PM2.5. Residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina are breathing air that is more polluted than Southeast Asian hotspots like Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia than to nearby Austria where there is less than half as much pollution. If pollution were improved to meet the WHO guideline, an average resident of Bosnia and Herzegovina would gain 1.8 years of life expectancy. Unlike in Southeast Asia where a portion of the pollution stems from wildfires, the pollution in eastern Europe is almost entirely due to the burning of fossil fuels.
In late 2022, the European Commission proposed ratcheting down the European Union’s current PM2.5 standard of 25 µg/m3 to 10 µg/m3 by 2030. Fifteen of the 28 member countries of the EU are exceeding the proposed stricter limit. Almost all of those countries are in Eastern Europe. If these 15 countries were to reduce their pollution levels to meet the proposed stricter limit, the average citizen living in these countries would gain 4.9 months of life expectancy on average, which is equivalent to gaining 80.3 million total life years for the population of those 15 countries as a whole.