Europe's ecosystems still under threat from air pollution despite improvements

1st July 2014

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • EU ,
  • Environment agencies


Jose Lafragueta

Europe's sensitive ecosystems are under threat from excessive levels of air pollution, despite marked improvements over the past two decades, according to a report from the European Environment Agency.

The report, entitled “Effects of air pollution on European ecosystems”, assessed the proportion of European ecosystems exposed to nitrogen and sulphur-containing pollutants above sustainable levels. It reveals that, while cuts in sulphur dioxide emissions have reduced acidification in recent years and helped some natural habitats to recover, emissions of ammonia (NH3) from agricultural activities and nitrogen oxides (NOX) from diesel vehicles and other combustion processes has increased, resulting in NH3 and NOX now being the main cause of surface water and soil acidification across parts of Europe.

The rapid accumulation of nitrogen in the soil damages ecosystems by feeding some beneficiaries, such as grass, heather, thistles and nettles, while crowding out a wide range of other species, including flowers, bees, beetles, and spiders, by depriving them of water, space and light. Nitrogen-rich leachates entering surface waters and groundwater, also increases the risk of eutrophication in rivers and lakes, which further damages marine life.

Hans Bruyninckx, executive director at the agency, commented: “Although air pollution does not cause as much harm as it once did, we are still struggling to protect sensitive ecosystems from harmful effects such as eutrophication. This changes habitats, endangering a wide range of species from fish to flowering plants. It is particularly striking that the problem appears to be just as bad in Europe’s protected natural areas.”

A recent report from the UK’s joint nature conservancy council (JNCC) also found compelling evidence of the risks to biodiversity from nitrogen emissions and says that critical loads for the protection of habitats from nitrogen deposition are being exceeded over large areas of Europe. Clare Whitfield, joint author of the study, said: “Nitrogen represents a major threat to biodiversity in the UK and across Europe. It is an under-acknowledged and very big issue that has slowly crept up on us.”


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Latest environmental legislation round-up

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Dr Julie Riggs issues a call to arms to tackle a modern-day human tragedy

15th March 2024

Read more

The UK’s new biodiversity net gain (BNG) requirements could create 15,000 hectares of woodlands, heath, grasslands, and wetlands and absorb 650,000 tonnes of carbon each year.

13th March 2024

Read more

Campaign group Wild Justice has accused the UK government of trying to relax pollution rules for housebuilders “through the backdoor”.

14th February 2024

Read more

Digital tracking, packaging data delays and new collections provide a waste focus for this edition’s environmental round-up by legislation expert Neil Howe

28th November 2023

Read more

Environmental crimes could result in prison sentences of up to 10 years and company fines of 5% of turnover under a proposed EU law agreed by the European parliament and council.

21st November 2023

Read more

Stuart McLachlan and Dean Sanders discuss their book: The Adventure of Sustainable Performance: Beyond ESG Compliance to Leadership in the New Era.

14th November 2023

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close