Sky-high CO2 emissions and further air quality are also not very good. Unless you like lunar landscapes, industrial heritage or huge crowds, you prefer not to go on holiday to the following European locations.
If we want to stop climate change, it helps to insulate your house and eat differently. At least, that helps a little, because judging by the main greenhouse gas CO2, households (with a share of 12 percent) and agriculture (2 percent) are not the biggest factors in Europe.
These are in the energy sector and heavy industry, which together account for 53 percent of European CO2 emissions. These are the leaders of the list of most polluting areas.
1. Garzweiler, Germany: a gap the size of The Hague with emissions from Belgium
We do not have to travel far for the largest CO2 source in Europe. At 30 kilometers from Roermond lies a dark, gaping hole in the earth: Europe's largest open-cast brown coal mine, named after the village of Garzweiler, which has been swallowed up by the excavation.
Brown coal is less hard than coal and also less suitable as a fuel. That is why it is extracted in the open air and burned on site in adapted coal-fired power stations. CO2 emissions per amount of energy generated are even higher than with coal.
The Garzweiler mine has a total surface area of 110 square kilometers (larger than the municipality of The Hague or Utrecht), is up to 400 meters deep and 35 million tons of brown coal are extracted every year. When burned, this releases about 100 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, about the same as the emissions from all of Belgium. The electricity goes, among other things, to the industry in the nearby Ruhr area.
The excavators in the Garzweiler mine are the largest vehicles man has ever made. (Photo: Raimond Spekking, Creative Commons.)
Lignite mining also takes place on a large scale in East Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland.
2. Belchatów, Poland: Europe's largest power plant
In the center of Poland is a huge power plant, the largest in Europe. In size, the Belchatów power plant is the world's fourth largest fossil power plant and the largest brown coal power plant.
The construction has two 300 meter long chimneys - almost as high as the Eiffel Tower - making the coal-fired power station (excluding masts) the highest building in Poland.
With annual emissions of around 38 million tons of CO2, Belchatów ranks among the most polluting coal-fired power stations, according to European Commission statistics.
In defense of Poland: the Belchatów power station generates 20 percent of all energy in the country, and Poland is by no means the only country in Europe that still uses coal-fired power stations.
For example, the largest individual CO2 source in the Netherlands is also a coal-fired power station in Eemshaven. It emits 8.3 million tons of CO2 annually and is 33 years younger than the Polish mega power plant.
The largest and most polluting power plant in Europe is located in Poland. (Photo: Morgre, Creative Commons)
3. Heathrow, England: Busiest hotspot for fast-growing aviation
With 81 million passengers, London's Heathrow was Europe's busiest airport in 2019. But before you fly there to experience the crowds, you can also take the train to Schiphol. Schiphol (after Charles de Gaulle near Paris) is in third place in Europe, with a total transport of 72 million passengers (and a large amount of cargo).
Aviation in Europe is responsible for 3 percent of total CO2 emissions. The actual climate impact is about twice as great because air traffic creates warming clouds.
In addition, the share is growing strongly: domestic flights in the EU have increased by more than a quarter in the past seven years. In that regard, you can also mention the Irish capital Dublin as the very polluting place. It is home to Ryanair's headquarters, which entered the top ten European companies with the highest CO2 emissions last year. EasyJet, AirFrance-KLM and Jet2 also have rapidly increasing emissions.
4. The Po Valley, the Randstad or ... the Balkans?
You can also turn it around in search of the most polluting part of Europe: not looking at what is happening on the ground, but looking at the sky. The concentrations of measurable pollutants such as nitric oxide and particulate matter are usually also a measure of other combustion processes and thus also the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2.
If you look at maps of air pollution over Europe, there are two areas that always stand out: the Po Valley in Northern Italy and the Netherlands.
The Netherlands (together with the Po Valley in Northern Italy) has the worst air quality in all of Europe. This image from the University of Heidelberg shows the nitric oxide concentration.
It shows that a large amount of small resources together make a big one; the red nitrogen spot on the map extends above the Randstad, the southern half of the Netherlands and also crosses the border to parts of Belgium and the Ruhr area. And so the sources of this pollution are also a big sum: millions of people with cars, intensive livestock farming, heavy industry.
But if you zoom in further on the European air quality map, a slightly different picture emerges. Although the Netherlands has the worst average air quality, it is still relatively poor in our cities, partly because we have a lot of bicycles and good public transport.
The Netherlands is therefore missing in the top hundred most polluted cities in Europe. That list is led by cities in Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and North Macedonia. The hundred most polluted cities also consist of no less than 29 Polish and 24 Italian cities. Causes may be related to the shielded location of cities in valleys, which prevent the pollution from disappearing, and the use of coal stoves for heating in winter in addition to intensive motorized traffic.
According to IQAir statistics, Culemborg is the city with the most polluted air in the Netherlands, in 139th place in Europe. See the full list here.
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