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Pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic: Air quality in Eastern Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to a pre-existing threat to global health: the quality of air in cities around the world. Prolonged exposure to air pollution has been found to increase the mortality rate of COVID-19. This is a particular concern for much of Eastern Europe, where emissions regularly exceed safe levels.

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:

  1. How did air pollution in Eastern Europe compare to Western Europe prior to the pandemic?
  2. What are the main sources of air pollution in Eastern European cities and can they be addressed by policymakers?
  3. 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.

Map 1


Source: Author’s calculations based on data from the World Air Quality Index COVID-19 dataset. Above the threshold AQI of 150, PM 2.5 levels are classified as unhealthy to the general population by the US EPA.

The gap in air quality between Eastern and Western Europe has been linked to differences in health outcomes for decades. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bobak and Feachem (1995) found that air pollution accounted for a significant share of the Czech Republic and Poland’s mortality gap with respect to Western Europe. The European Environment Agency’s 2020 report provides estimates for ‘years of life lost’ attributable to different pollutants. Figure 1, which plots these estimates for PM 2.5, highlights the fact that Eastern European countries, in particular those in the Balkans, continue to experience significantly higher mortality related to pollution, as compared to their Western European counterparts.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of SITE, the FREE Network, SITE and its research institutes.

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