Pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic: Air quality in Eastern Europe
This policy brief analyses recent data on air quality in the region and the factors that explain a persistent East-West divide in pollution in Europe. It concludes by evaluating to what extent lockdowns in 2020 provided a temporary respite from pollution in the region.
"What are the main sources of air pollution in Eastern European cities and can they be addressed by policymakers?"
The WHO estimates that air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year (WHO 2018). COVID-19 has further amplified these health risks, as air pollution can increase both the chance of catching respiratory diseases and their severity. At the same time, the pandemic has resulted in lockdowns and a general slowdown in economic activity which are widely perceived as having led to a temporary improvement in air quality.
This brief provides an overview of recent trends in air quality in Eastern European cities using data from the World Air Quality Index. It addresses three questions:
- How did air pollution in Eastern Europe compare to Western Europe prior to the pandemic?
- What are the main sources of air pollution in Eastern European cities and can they be addressed by policymakers?
- Was there a significant improvement in air quality in 2020 as a result of COVID-19?
Air Pollution in Eastern Europe
Most measures of air quality in Europe show a stark East-West divide. Map 1 plots the share of days in 2019 where air pollution, as measured by PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter), exceeded levels classified as unhealthy for the general population. On average, cities to the east of the former Iron Curtain experienced over 100 such days, compared to an average of 20 days in Western Europe. These averages mask significant variation within both regions; Tallinn was among the best performing cities while Naples was among the worst.