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ENVIRONMENT

Swedish city Umeå has Europe’s cleanest air

Umeå in northeast Sweden, has been named as having the cleanest air in Europe, according to a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Swedish city Umeå has Europe's cleanest air
Umeå city centre, home to Europe's cleanest air. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The EEA published The European city air quality viewer, an interactive tool showing the air pollution levels in 323 cities in Europe. Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk according to the EEA. 

“This city air quality viewer allows citizens to see for themselves in an easy-to-use way how their city is doing compared to others on air pollution. It provides concrete and local information which can empower citizens towards their local authorities to address the issues,” says Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the EEA.

The cleanest air out of all these cities can be found in northern Sweden, in the city of Umeå, which has a level of 3,7 micrograms of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, per cubic metre of air.

The EEA’s classification of air quality defines four levels of air quality: “good”, “moderate”, “poor” and “very poor”, with “good air” defined as having under 10 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.

Only 127 out of the 323 cities in Europe are found to pass the limit of “good air” set by both the EU and the WHO.

All of the Swedish cities included in the study – Uppsala, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo as well as Umeå, had “good air” according to the report. Uppsala ranked 6th out of the 323 countries tested, while Stockholm ranked 9th, Gothenburg 23rd and Malmö 93rd. 

Second and third in the EEA’s ranking are Tammerfors in Finland and Funchal in Portugal.

 “Very poor air” was defined as over 25 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air and five cities on the index are considered to meet  this standard. Worst of all were Nowy Sacz in Poland, where 27.3 micrograms of particles were found per cubic meter of air, Cremona in Italy and Slavonski Brod in Croatia. 

Despite a reduction in emissions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the remaining 196 countries were all found to have above acceptable levels of air pollution. While lower levels of commuting have led to a decrease in levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, levels of particulate matter have remained stagnant.

The EEA’s experts said that emissions of particulate matter are the result of many different processes, including combustion of fuel for heating of homes, industry, and agriculture.

“White air quality has improved markedly over the past years, air pollution remains stubbornly high in many cities across Europe,” says Bruyninckx.

Last year, an EEA report found that Europe’s air has gotten cleaner in the last decade, but that the bad air caused 417 000 premature deaths across 41 countries in 2018 alone.

A similar study in The Lancet Planetary Health earlier this year found that air pollution causes around 200 000 premature deaths per year in Europe. They stated that if the pollution was lowered across Europe to below the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meters, the levels recommended by the WHO, around 52 000 deaths could be avoided each year.

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ENVIRONMENT

KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

Sweden's government has announced that it will allow a major wolf cull this year, with hunters licensed to kill as many as half of the estimated 400 animals in the country. What is going on?

KEY POINTS: Why is Sweden planning to cull half its wolf population?

How many wolves are there in Sweden? 

Wolves were extinct in Sweden by the mid-1880s, but a few wolves came over the Finnish border in the 1980s, reestablishing a population.  

There are currently 480 wolves living in an estimated 40 packs between Sweden and Norway, with the vast majority — about 400 — in central Sweden. 

How many wolves should there be? 

The Swedish parliament voted in 2013, however, for the population to be kept at between 170 to 270 individuals, with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency then reporting to the EU that Sweden would aim to keep the population at about 270 individuals to meet the EU’s Habitats Directive. 

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency was commissioned by the government to update the analysis,  and make a new assessment of the reference value for the wolf’s population size. It then ruled in a report the population should be maintained at about 300 individuals in order to ensure a “favourable conservation status and to be viable in the long term”. 

What’s changed now? 

Sweden’s right-wing opposition last week voted that the target number should be reduced to 170 individuals, right at the bottom of the range agreed under EU laws. With the Moderate, Christian Democrat, Centre, and Sweden Democrats all voting in favour, the statement won a majority of MPs.

“Based on the premise that the Scandinavian wolf population should not consist of more than 230 individuals, Sweden should take responsibility for its part and thus be in the lower range of the reference value,” the Environment and Agriculture Committee wrote in a statement.

Why is it a political issue? 

Wolf culling is an almost totemic issue for many people who live in the Swedish countryside, with farmers often complaining about wolves killing livestock, and hunters wanting higher numbers of licenses to be issued to kill wolves. 

Opponents of high wolf culls complain of an irrational varghat, or “wolf hate” among country people, and point to the fact that farmers in countries such as Spain manage to coexist with a much higher wolf population. 

So what has the government done? 

Even though the ruling Social Democrats voted against the opposition’s proposal, Rural Affairs Minister Anna-Caren Sätherberg agreed that the wolf population needed to be culled more heavily than in recent years. As a result, the government has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to once again reassess how many wolves there should be in the country. 

“We see that the wolf population is growing every year and with this cull, we want to ensure that we can get down to the goal set by parliament,” Sätherberg told the public broadcaster SVT.

Sweden would still meet its EU obligations on protecting endangered species, she added, although she said she understood country people “who live where wolves are, who feel social anxiety, and those who have livestock and have been affected”.

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