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.
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.
— Centre for Cities (@CentreforCities) January 27, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Half of local authority leaders polled by Centre for Cities highlighted the environment as a major concern. To tackle the problem they should:
Meanwhile, the UK Government should:
Make securing plans with the EU to tackle cross border air pollution a key component of the future relationship.
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Air pollution in cities fell over the course of the first national lockdown, but now meets or exceeds pre-pandemic levels in 80 per cent of places studied.
Valentine Quinio and Hubert Thieriot on the fall and rise of air pollution in 2020.
As life returns to normal councils must act to stop air pollution returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Three ways in which Covid-19 has affected councils' plans to build a green economy.
Coronavirus lockdown restrictions are now lifting across the UK, but are people in cities making the most of their newfound freedom?
Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air.
The Government has urged more people to cycle and walk, rather than drive, in response to the limits on public transport capacity that COVID-19 imposes. This would require a dramatic change in behaviour.
Air pollution remains a killer, and cities should not push their plans to tackle it into the long grass.
A number of cities across the UK are preparing for Clean Air Zones. Instead of being a trade-off, Valentine Quinio shows that there is an economic rationale for tackling toxic air.
Cities Outlook showed that cities, and particularly cities in the south-east of the country, are blighted by poor air quality. But how does this fit with broader changes in the UK in recent years? Valentine Quinio explores the recent trends.