Air quality

Air pollution is an urban issue.

In the UK 40 cities and towns are at or have exceeded World Health Organisation air pollution limits. We found that this causes an estimated 40,000 deaths each year – making it the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK.

How many people in UK cities and towns die from air pollution each year?

More than one in 19 deaths in UK cities and large towns are related to long-term exposure to just one type of air pollution: PM2.5. This means that people living in cities are 25 times more likely to be killed by air pollution than in a car crash.

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. For example, in Bournemouth in 2018 there were 62 days when pollution levels rose to a point where they negatively affected people’s health – while in Belfast this happened on just eight days.

Cities in the Greater South East also have higher concentrations of deadly PM2.5. For example, in London, Slough and Luton, PM2.5 cases an estimated one in 16 deaths.

Meanwhile 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.

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.

Not all air pollution is created in the place that it concentrates – some in the south of England is blown in from continental Europe.

What does the law say about air pollution?

Despite breaking the World Health Organization’s air pollution guidelines, the levels of PM2.5 that we see in our cities are currently legal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

95% of monitored roads in the UK’s largest cities and towns also breach the legal limits for NO2 emissions.

How have the Covid pandemic and lockdown affected air quality in cities?

Although in cities and large towns like Glasgow, Warrington and Oxford, NO2 concentration levels more than halved during lockdown, not all cities and large towns experienced a significant improvement in air quality. When restrictions were lifted, air pollution returned to its pre-pandemic levels in 39 of 49 cities and large towns studied, even though none had returned to previous levels of economic activity.

What is the relationship between air pollution and the economy?

These health effects also directly impact productivity: air pollution causes over six million sick days a year in the UK. Cities, as places that concentrate both economic activity and air pollution, are particularly affected.

How can we reduce air pollution?

Half of local authority leaders polled by Centre for Cities highlighted the environment as a major concern. To tackle the problem they should:

  • Introduce Ultra Low Emission Zones to charge car and van drivers in city centres.
  • Ban the use of wood burning stoves and coal fires in areas where air pollution exceeds guidelines.

Meanwhile, the UK Government should:

  • Adopt the WHO’s stricter guidelines on PM2.5, and make a legally binding commitment to meet this by 2030 at the latest.
  • Triple the size of the Clean Air Fund to £660 million to help cities fight air pollution.
  • Provide financial incentives for cities to improve air quality through the establishment of an Environmental Impact Bond.

Make securing plans with the EU to tackle cross border air pollution a key component of the future relationship.

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