Air quality

Air pollution is an urban issue

Air quality tends to be worse in cities than elsewhere in the country and is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, causing an estimated 40,000 deaths each year. Our research reveals that 40 UK cities and towns are at or exceed World Health Organisation air pollution limits and more than one in 19 deaths in these places are related to long-term exposure to just one type of toxic pollutant: PM2.5.

What causes air pollution in cities?

Transport is a significant, but not sole contributor to air pollution. Burning fuels is also a major cause. For example, half of deadly PM2.5 toxins generated in cities and large towns come from sources such as wood burning stoves and coal fires. The levels of this toxic pollutant break World Health Organization guidelines and yet are currently legal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Where is air pollution worse?

There is a clear south / north divide to air pollution. Cities in the Greater South East have higher levels of pollution and higher concentrations of deadly PM2.5. For example, in London, Slough and Luton, PM2.5 cases an estimated one in 16 deaths. Conversely, cities in Scotland and northern England see the smallest proportion of PM2.5-related deaths. Aberdeen is the city with the lowest proportion – one in 33 deaths are estimated to be caused by the pollutant.

The pandemic does not lessen the need for action on air quality

Although in cities and large towns like Glasgow, Warrington and Oxford, NO2 concentration levels more than halved during the first lockdown, not all cities and large towns experienced a significant improvement in air quality.

Our research revealed that improvements were short-lived, as when restrictions were lifted air pollution returned to its pre-pandemic levels in 39 out of 40 cities and large towns studied. 

Environmental issues should be prioritised by Government

Back in January, the Government pushed back the Environment Bill for at least another six months, delaying decisions fundamental to improving air quality and to bringing air pollution targets in line with World Health Organization guidelines. We believe the Environment Bill must return to Parliament as soon as possible and be much tougher in its approach to tackling air pollution in UK cities.

What needs to change as we emerge from the pandemic?

The pandemic has pushed air quality concerns down the national agenda, with policymakers prioritising the immediate healthcare and economic impacts of Covid-19. As restrictions lift and the UK begins to emerge from the pandemic, urgent action must be taken to address air pollution once again.

Steps to tackle air pollution in UK cities include:

  • Accelerating the implementation of charging Clean Air Zones.
  • Encouraging people to return to – and swap to – public transport once the pandemic is under control and once it is safe to do so
  • Introducing Ultra Low Emission Zones to charge car and van drivers in city centres
  • Banning the use of wood burning stoves and coal fires in areas where air pollution exceeds guidelines
  • Tripling the size of the Clean Air Fund to £660 million to help cities to introduce policies to improve air quality
  • Passing the Environment Bill, which should legislate to adopt the WHO’s stricter guidelines on PM2.5
  • Providing financial incentives for cities to improve air quality through the establishment of an Environmental Impact Bond

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Net zero: decarbonising the city

Valentine Quinio and Guilherme Rodrigues

The UK has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This report sets out what needs to change if cities and large towns are to lead the way in helping the Government achieve this goal.

Report 6 Jul 2021