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Why is it urgent to transform in our cities?

Why is it urgent to transform in our cities? Read more about it in this interesting article.
A girl in a puffer jacket type hoodie holding a mask to her face with both hands.
© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility

According to data from World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019, 99% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met.

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016. 91% of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries and the greatest number in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions.

With much effort and intervention, levels of air pollution in rich countries have reduced significantly in recent years. However, for low to middle-income countries, the adverse health impacts of air pollution are getting worse. New solutions need to be implemented in order to slow down this process. Death rates are typically highest in middle-income countries. Older populations have the highest death rates from outdoor air pollution.

Globally, and in most countries, the number of deaths from air pollution has increased. In addition to population growth and ageing populations, the key contributing factors include increased power demand and the soaring use of private vehicles.

Europe’s air pollution status

Although emissions of air pollutants have decreased substantially in Europe over recent decades, air quality problems in Europe persist.

Based on data from the European Environmental Agency (EEA), air pollution harms human health. A significant proportion of Europe’s population lives in areas where air pollution poses risks to health. This is especially true for cities, where exposure to particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO) pollution poses health risks. Around 77% of city dwellers in Europe are exposed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at levels deemed harmful to health, according to the latest EEA Air Quality in Europe report.

In the WHO European Region alone, exposure to particulate matter (PM) decreases the life expectancy of every person by an average of almost one year, mostly due to increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and lung cancer. A recent study using data from 25 cities in the European Union has estimated that life expectancy could be increased by up to approximately 22 months in the most polluted cities if the long-term PM2.5 concentration was reduced to the WHO guideline annual level.

Wideshot of a smog-filled cityscape.

Data from the WHO Environment and Health Information System (ENHIS), covering 357 European cities in 33 countries, show that in 2009 almost 83% of the population in these cities was exposed to PM10 levels exceeding the WHO guidelines. While this proportion was still high, it represents an improvement compared to previous years, as average PM10 levels slowly decreased in most countries in the last decade.

Some 40 million people in the 115 largest cities in the European Union (EU) are exposed to air exceeding WHO air quality guideline values for at least one pollutant. Children living near roads with heavy-duty vehicle traffic have twice the risk of respiratory problems as those living near less congested streets


  • Go to the WHO website.
  • Open the following page on Air Pollution.
  • Explore the data on air pollution, its impact and WHO’s response.
  • Summarise your findings in 350 words.

Transport is the main source of air pollution. Do you think this statement is true? Let’s find out in the next step.

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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Clean Air for Urban Liveability

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