The air in Germany can generally be described as good. However, according to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, Germany is only in 25th place in terms of clean air quality and for the most part does not meet the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended guideline value of less than 10 µg/m3 for particulate matter. Neighboring countries, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands or Denmark, have comparatively better air quality than Germany. Even in a more global comparison, countries such as Spain or the USA have on average better air quality than Germany. Nevertheless, Germany is spared from extreme air pollution and, apart from Unna in North Rhine-Westphalia, all communities in Germany managed to meet the WHO guideline value for PM2.5 concentration in at least one month. In recent years, no annual Air Quality Index (AQI) has been recorded that is "Harmful for sensitive groups" or worse.
The real-time pollution map for Germany can be viewed at the top of this page.
According to the IQAir 2019 city ranking, Giessen in the state of Hessen is the city with the highest average air pollution in Germany. In 2019, the air quality index (AQI) in Giessen was classified as "moderate" due to a PM2.5 content of 14.9 µg/m3. The second most polluted city in Germany is Regensburg in Bavaria with a PM2.5 concentration of 14.5 µg/m3, closely followed by Northeim in Lower Saxony with 14.2 µg/m3 in 2019, thus exceeding the PM2.5 guideline value of 10 µg/m3 recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) by over 40%. Giessen and Regensburg were only able to meet the WHO guideline value for PM2.5 in 2019 in the month of September.
The best air quality in Germany in 2019 was achieved in the small local community of Merzalben in Rhineland-Palatinate. This village recorded an average PM2.5 concentration of 5.4 µg/m3 in 2019. In 2017 and 2018, Merzalben had slightly worse air quality than the following year and was beaten by Rottach-Egern in Upper Bavaria as the cleanest village in Germany. As the IQAir 2019 city ranking shows, Merzalben managed to meet the WHO guideline value throughout 2019. This was due to the fact that the town only had a maximum value of 7.4 µg/m3 PM2.5 in January 2019. Münstertal in the Black Forest in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg also managed to stay below the WHO guideline value of 10 µg/m3 in 2019, and thus came in second place among the municipalities with the best air quality in Germany.
The main causes of air pollution in Germany are road traffic, power stations, industrial processes (including solvent emissions), heating with fossil fuels, agriculture and waste treatment. The main sources of air pollution are mainly anthropogenic. Natural sources of air pollution in Germany are very rare due to the lack of forest fires and sandstorms, which occur frequently in other parts of the world.1 Industry, including the mining, chemical and metal industries, is a relevant sector in Germany and thus also responsible for a significant proportion of emissions. The main pollutants with the largest amounts emitted by industry are volatile organic compounds (VOC) and carbon monoxide (CO), followed by particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).2 Emissions from agriculture stem, inter alia, from manure management of agricultural soils. The pollutants produced are ammonium (NH3), NOx, VOC, PMx and hexachlorobenzene (HCB). Due to the high negative impact of farms, many different directives have been adopted to protect the environment and improve air quality.3 A high proportion of air pollution in Germany comes from road traffic. A large proportion of emissions of NOx, CO, and PMx originate mainly from this sector. Compared to the other sources of pollution, the processing of waste accounts for a smaller proportion of total air pollution in Germany.4
Air quality in Germany has improved over the years. The relative share of NOx has decreased by 10% from 1995 to 2007, but road traffic is still by far the largest source of emissions. However, the relative share of road traffic in air pollution has been reduced significantly over the last two decades. Since the turn of the century, attention in Germany has focused on PM10, which is produced as a by-product of road traffic and industry. Before that, the share of traffic was 27%, while the relative share of industry was 23%. In 2007 it was already at 19% for road traffic and 22% for industry.5
Although the air quality values in Germany according to the Air Quality Index (AQI) are on average "Moderate" or "Good", the AQI value "Moderate" means that health problems can occur to sensitive groups. Germany as a whole, especially in February, is also far above the guideline value recommended by the WHO. This is due to increased heating with fossil fuels and frequent inversion weather conditions.
In Germany alone, 43.000 people died as a result of increased air pollution from ozone and particulate matter in 2015. More than 30% of these can be attributed to pollutants from traffic, mainly due to the use of diesel as a fuel. These figures put Germany in fourth place in Europe in terms of the number of deaths due to air pollution. A major challenge for Germany lies in complying with the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline values for particulate matter PM2.5, where the WHO assumes significant health risks for the population at an average annual exposure of over 10 µg/m3.6
Particulate matter in the respiratory system can lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases and thus cause premature death. Particulate matter increases the likelihood of lung cancer and cardiovascular problems, although cardiovascular problems can also lead to an increased risk of diabetes. Hospital admissions related to the respiratory system are also more common when ozone exposure is higher. Particularly affected are asthmatics, who are more susceptible to illness when nitrogen oxide levels are higher. In addition to asthmatics there are also elderly and sick people and children at risk, because they are more susceptible, or their immune systems are still underdeveloped.7
In addition to the known health consequences, air pollution can also lead to skin problems, especially on the face. Ozone, for example, can trigger oxidative stress, which in turn damages the skin's barrier function and can cause inflammation on the face. Fine dust and nitrogen oxides also attack the skin's natural protective function and cause oxidative stress. This accelerates the external ageing process of the skin. A strong correlation with extrinsic skin ageing has been proven, especially for particulate matter from traffic. This manifests itself in the increased occurrence of pigment spots and wrinkles on the face. In general, eczema occurs more frequently in regions with higher levels of air pollution.8
Air pollution also affects psychological health, as a study in Germany on air pollution of particulate matter and chronic stress has shown. It was found that larger particulate matter PM10 does not lead to chronic stress, but an increase in the finer PM2.5 particulate matter fraction can be associated with an increase in chronic stress. Vice versa, chronic stress in Germany leads to a higher susceptibility to diseases due to pollutants.9
Not only human health is threatened by air pollution, but forest soils are also affected. Acidifying pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen have been affecting the pH value of German forest soils for over half a century. An acidified forest soil contains elevated levels of aluminium and heavy metals which inhibit the absorption of nutrients by the tree roots and thus cause a deficiency or imbalance in the tree's nutrients. Such a nutrient deficiency has a negative effect on the biodiversity of the forest, which then causes forest damage.10
In a temporal comparison of a study, a delay or even reversion of acidification could be observed. This improvement in soil quality in German forests is clearly related to the improvement of environmental and forest management guidelines, as well as to clean air policy. Soils fertilized with lime showed a significant improvement.11
A geographical comparison within Germany shows that the northwest and southeast of Germany are affected by low pH values and that acidification of forest soils is therefore measurable. However, central Germany is also partially affected and, like the other areas, has a high need for lime fertilisation.12
According to the Federal Environment Agency, Germany has developed various programs and measures against air pollution. For example, there are plans to reduce coal use significantly. Germany has also invested heavily in the development of renewable energy sources such as solar power. For transport, new vehicle regulations should be made public and the use of electronic vehicles and public transport should be increased. The agricultural sector is to be improved mainly through revised fertilizer regulations in the interests of air quality.13
One of these programs is the Clean Air Emergency Plan 2017-2020, which focuses on improving air quality in cities. In this programme, urban commercial transport is to be increasingly powered by electricity. Local public transport (ÖPNV) bus fleets, taxis, rental cars and car-sharing cars are also to be electrified. Overall, the infrastructure for electric vehicles is to be expanded and improved through multiple grants. The municipal transport system is also to be completely digitalised as a result of the measures, and diesel public transport buses are to be fitted with improved exhaust aftertreatment systems. A financial incentive to buy electric cars is to be provided through appropriate support. Similarly, similar environmentally conscious retrofitting and combined transport are to be financially supported. Above all, however, cycling is to be significantly promoted through improved infrastructure, such as the increased introduction of cycle paths and other transport measures for cyclists.14
Air quality in Germany is measured by air quality monitoring stations that measure air pollutants such as particulate matter PM10 and PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), lead, benzene, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. They are often set up in places with heavy traffic. When setting up the measuring device, specific distance values must be observed; a minimum distance of 0.5 m to buildings applies, as well as at least 25 m to the next intersection. The air measuring station may have a maximum distance of 10 m from the road and must be at a height of between 1.5 and 4 m. These requirements are monitored by the European Commission. Compliance with these rules is checked at least every 5 years. The measuring methods of the device are also legally required throughout Europe.15,16 In addition to the official measuring stations operated by environmental authorities, there are now also numerous measuring stations operated by non-governmental organisations, research institutions and private individuals. This has been made possible above all by the spread of so-called low-cost air quality measuring stations (Low-Cost Air Quality Sensors). These compact measuring stations often cost only a few hundred euros and can be networked via WiFi with real-time air quality platforms such as IQAir AirVisual.
In Germany there is often discussion about a speed limit on the motorway. It has been proven that vehicles emit fewer pollutants into the air at a lower speed. For this reason, a lower speed limit has already been introduced in many towns and villages. This reduces noise pollution, leads to better air quality and to greater road safety. In 2018, the Federal Environment Agency in Germany calculated the amount of CO2 that would be saved by a speed limit on motorways. With a speed limit of 120 km/h, a reduction of 2.6 million tonnes would be achieved, and 1.9 million tonnes at 130 km/h. In 2018, without a speed limit, 39.1 million tonnes of CO2- equivalents were released into the air on German motorways through emissions from passenger cars and commercial vehicles.17
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