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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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This event at Conservative Party Conference will focus on air quality and cities
This event at Labour Party Conference will focus on air quality and cities
Researcher Guilherme Rodrigues analyses carbon emissions from across the capital to conclude that encouraging density will help cities reach net zero.
Switching to electric vehicles will help us on the road to net zero, but to reach our destination most of us will need to ditch cars entirely.
Reaching net zero will be delivered at the local level, and city leaders can and should lead the way in building a carbon-neutral future.
If net zero policies were targeted at our largest cities and towns it would get the Government a quarter of the way to meeting its net zero target.
Cities are big carbon emitters, but their density means they can also play a big part in reaching net zero.
Online briefing and Q&A
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.
Air pollution remains a big killer in cities. The problem is getting worse - not better - but there are steps that city leaders can take to reduce it.