Air pollution kills thousands in Spain every year

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Air pollution covers 80% of Spain

88% of Spaniards and 80% of Spain’s land area were exposed to unhealthy air in 2020. This despite the fact air pollution fell to its lowest level in a decade due to covid restrictions.

This is what the Spanish environmental movement Ecologistas en Acción says in its annual report on air quality. It shows COVID-19 led to an ‘unprecedented’ general improvement in air quality. But still, according to WHO standards, 42 of the 47 million Spaniards breathe polluted air. Pollution affects an area of 402,000 square kilometres. 800 official monitoring stations, some of which were located in major ports and airports, collected the data.

Significant improvement

The levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ozone have improved ‘significantly’. The levels of fine dust (PM10 and PM2.5) also improved ‘significantly’ by 2020. Measurements of particulate matter show the lowest level since 1990. According to Ecologistas en Acción, 8.5 million Spaniards breathed polluted air, i.e. one fifth of the population. This is four million fewer than in 2019. The calcalation takes into account the standards of the European regulations, which are somewhat looser than the recommendations of WHO.  

COVID-19 and coal

An area of 210,000 square kilometres is polluted to the point of being harmful to vegetation, 42% of the territory. This is 40,000 square kilometres less than last year. According to the NGO, this was due to the reduced mobility and economic activity during the two alerts. Also significant was the closure of most coal-fired power plants, they “seem to have contributed to drastic emission reductions locally”.

Cities, industry and transport

The report identifies motorised traffic as the main source of pollution in the densely populated urban areas. In certain industrial areas, and in the vicinity of large thermal power plants, industrial sources have a negative impact on air quality. Near ports and airports, the dominant transportation has an impact on air quality.


The scarce precipitation and atmospheric stability at the beginning of the year favoured pollution originating from North Africa. The unstable and wet spring favoured the dispersion and deposition of typical winter pollutants (NO2 and particulate matter). The intense summer heat did not lead to an increase in ozone concentrations.

The number of exceedances of WHO legal standards in Spain is “much lower than in previous years, down 55% and 41% respectively compared to the averages for the period 2012-2019”. Despite the 27% decrease in NO2, Madrid continued to exceed the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide during the period.

Ecologistas en Acción reminds that the European Court of Justice is still holding a trial against Spain. This could result in fines running into millions.


The Canary Islands faced the worst pollution of the decade in January and February. The NGO complains that “without any government intervention”, the population was trapped until the end of the period due to the pandemic. Air pollution must be “addressed as a problem of the first order” because, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), there are about 30,000 premature deaths in Spain every year due to air pollution. Of these, according to health institute Carlos III, 10,000 die during periods of high pollution.

Lower emissions due to pandemic

For Ecologistas en Acción, the improvement in the situation by 2020 is “excellent news”.

“The situation created by the pandemic confirms that reducing emissions in cities improves public health and the lives of citizens,” said the organisation, which is developing the European Clean Cities campaign. The report also shows that, according to the World Bank, the health costs due to pollution are at least $50 billion a year. In Spain, this is equivalent to 3.5% of GDP, without taking into account the cost of damage to crops and ecosystems.

Finally, Ecologistas en Acción recalls current legislation requires plans to improve air quality; but they are not always implemented due to a lack of political will. Currently, ten Spanish autonomous communities which exceed the legal ozone standard are not meeting their obligation.


Ecologistas en Acción proposes as a solution with the following recommendations:

  • reduction of motorised traffic,
  • promotion of pedestrian traffic, bicycles and clean public transport,
  • the promotion of energy saving,
  • focus on thermal fossil fuels,
  • penalisation of diesel use,
  • limitation of the use of aeroplanes, and
  • the declaration of a control area for maritime transport emissions in the Mediterranean, as in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.
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