Italy’s big failure on climate

Coby Hobbs & Erika Macrina

Italy failed to meet the last EU clean air directives. Yet, as thousands continue to die from air pollution, can the nation do its part to clean its air and meet new guidelines?      

Protesters in Taranto, Italy, at an environmental protest in May 2019. The banner says “Time is up. Let’s change Taranto.” aleria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The European Union has long pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 with the hope of a collaborative effort by all member nations. As the EU Council states, “Europe’s future depends on a healthy planet”. This European Green New Deal, or the union’s strategy for reaching its 2050 goal, came to fortition during a council summit in the summer of 2019. Here, the timeline of endeavors and future amendments to reach an innovative, ambitious, efficient, and ultimately fairer and “greener” Europe would begin.

Over the past four years, the “Fit for 55” legislative package has been thought of as the nucleus that will power the environmentally conscious efforts of the EU and turn its “ambition into reality”.

The initiatives of this package include decrees and directives ranging from revisions to the EU emissions trading system, new regulatory standards for vehicle emissions, and adjustments to renewable energy laws.

Source: Wordcloud based on contents of the European Union Report. Source:

The atmosphere is warming, and the climate is changing with each passing year. One million of the eight million species on the planet are at risk of being lost. Forests and oceans are being polluted and destroyed. The European Green Deal is a response to these challenges.

However, it seems these updated policies are still not complete in tackling all the EU’s environmental concerns and goals.

In a recent April summit, the European Commission Clean Air Unit met to revise current EU rules which have presented shortcomings in the effort to reach desired air quality levels.

The council’s revisions focused on three main policy areas.

  • Policy area 1: Closer alignment of the EU air quality standards with scientific knowledge
    including the latest recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

  • Policy area 2: Improving the air quality legislative framework, including provisions on
    penalties and public information.
  • Policy area 3: Strengthening of air quality monitoring, modelling, and plans.

These new revisions seem to be accredited to member nations such as Italy, whose air pollution levels “presently” broke EU directives even during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020. 

Other nations, such as France, also broke EU air regulation laws as Paris was taken to court by the EU Commission over excessive amounts of fine particle pollution along with a breach of the directive for nitrogen dioxide levels.

During the recent meeting of the European Commission Clean Air Unit, the data presented by the EU show an overall constant and negative slope of emissions among member nations.

Yet, nations such as Italy still face existential threats to air quality if not from its mass reliance on motorized vehicles, a ubiquitous trade, and transport sector, but even ammonia emissions from the agriculture industry.

By looking at the data which tracks the air Italian citizens must breathe and the subsequent mortality rate it becomes apparent that the air pollution crisis is still ongoing and far from being acceptable in Italy despite amendments to the regulations of the EU Green New Deal.

Air Pollutant Group

According to recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO), Italy’s levels of fine particle matter (PM2.5), an air pollutant consisting of a complex mixture of aerosols and solids which can cause the air to appear hazy, are exceeding recommended levels. Under these guidelines, the WHO labels the air quality in Italy “moderately unsafe”.

Dense concentrations of PM2.5 are accredited to emissions from the combustion of petrol, oil, diesel, and wood.

In a report from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, road freight traffic in Italy produced about 189 tons of PM10, a pollutant consisting of inhalable particles, 147 tons of PM2.5, and 4,125 tons of nitrogen dioxide in 2016. This resulted in a national annual healthcare cost ranging from 400 million to 1.2 billion EUR per year.

The WHO data indicates that Italy’s national average of PM2.5 is 17 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) which exceeds the recommendation of a maximum of 10 µg/m3. As the European Commission Clean Air Unit’s policies and regulations fall into closer alignment with the WHO, Italy seems to face an even stricter set of guidelines to meet the EU’s environmental goals despite the nation’s inability to meet previous and looser directives.

Fine particle matter pollution is not the only reason of concern for the country’s ability to meet new air quality standards and achieve a healthier environment and population, but to transfer to a cleaner and more sustainable energy practices.

Fine particle matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone are considered the three main pollutants that most significantly affect human health, an intuitive and major level of concern among Italians excluding the additional concern of climate change.

In a recent poll from Trinomics obtained from a survey measuring collective concerns about the importance of air quality among EU citizens, of which nearly a third of the respondents were Italian, an overwhelming majority voiced their support to take more action for cleaner and safer air.

When asked “How concerned are you about the levels of air pollution to which you are usually exposed?”, 59% of participants responded, “very concerned”. When asked, “How important is having good air quality to you?”, 89% of participants responded “very concerned”.

Participants were also asked to respond to the EU’s policy revisions. 79% believe EU standards should align more with WHO guidelines. 61% believe current penalty provisions are lacking and insufficient in holding nations accountable, and 74% want better access to (real-time) air quality data and live tracking of air pollutant concentrations.

Source: European Union Eurostat

As stated in a 2020 report produced by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the number of premature deaths attributable to concentrations of PM2.5 in 2018 alone corresponded to about 379,000. Additionally, deaths related to nitrogen dioxide concentrations (NO2) equated to 54,000 and ozone (O3), respectively, to 19,400.

Combing these deaths attributed to the EU’s polluted air, a troubling total of 452,400 lives, one could fill Italy’s largest football stadium, San Siro, more than 5 and a half times with those who prematurely died from over-exposure to these pollutants.

However, these numbers account for all deaths in the EU-27 and not just Italian citizens.

Italy has the second-highest number of PM2.5 attributable deaths at 49,875. This number of victims would fill San Siro at around 62% capacity.

2009-08 Derby- AC Milan vs Inter at San Siro” Source: user nobbiwan on Flickr marked with CC BY 2.0.

In 2019 alone over 95% of the EU urban population was exposed to concentrations of PM2.5, NO2, and O3 that exceeded the WHO guidelines, but less than 35% when compared to the former EU standard.

Italy’s primary source of NO2 derives from road transport, which emits the pollutant at a close to ground level and in densely populated urban communities, thus maximizing population exposure.

In a 2020 report from the EEA, Italy’s concentrated levels of NO2 maintained a national average of 21 µg/m3, more than doubling the WHO guideline of 10 µg/m3.

Milan alone registered an annual mean of 48.48 µg/m3 of NO2. Other industrial and northern Italian cities followed the country’s economic hub with outlier and extra concerning figures. Brescia, located in the region of Lombardy, maintained a concentration of around 40 µg/m3. The northern port city of Genova had a 2020 average concentration around 48 µg/m3.

All these cities more than quadrupled the maximum concentration of NO2 suggested by the WHO guidelines.

Milan and Brescia also reside in the wealthiest region of Italy, Lombardy, whose GDP doubles that of the closest second, Lazio.

Only three other cities south of Genova exceeded or met a NO2 concentration of 40 µg/m3 in 2020: Florence, Rome, and Naples.

NO2 level of pollutant in ITALY

The concentration of O3 in Italy’s air, a pollutant that emerges after a heat and light-induced chemical reaction of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds such as methane, is one of the most intense air pollutant concentrations that has repeatedly failed to meet not only the WHO guideline but the EU target value.

O3 is attributed to having adverse effects on not only human health but also the longevity of vegetation and ecosystems resulting in decreased crop yields and biodiversity.

According to a 2020 report from the EEA, the highest concentrations of O3 in Italy were found during spring and summer when meteorological conditions favor O3 formation.

The main sources of O3 concentrations emerge from pollutants emitted from petrol-powered vehicles, power plants, and refiners following their chemical reaction in the presence of sunlight.

Italy maintained a national median of 123 µg/m3 of O3 in its air which failed to meet even the former EU target value of 120 µg/m3. The WHO target value remains at 100 µg/m3, which over 97% of EU nations failed to meet in 2021.

As new EU Clean Air policy initiatives seek to emulate WHO standards, it begs the question: will nations such as Italy meet new standards in a reasonable time frame?

Italy has more than doubled its annual number of electric car registrations since 2020 reaching a yearly rate of around 68,000 new electric car owners. While this trend may result in decreased air pollutants, it does not seem to serve as a complete measure to help Italy reach new air quality directives that are more in line with the WHO.

Despite the gradual adoption of electric vehicles, public transportation in Italy still only accounts for 0.8% of all road travel.

The search for more sustainable and intelligent transportation methods out of necessity for the EU’s goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 has produced an ambitious acceleration of change and regulations that force nations like Italy to take more extensive measures than ever to clean their air. 

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