The pandemic has pushed air quality concerns down the agenda as national and local policymakers grapple with immediate healthcare and economic impacts. Important measures like Clean Air Zones (CAZs) have lost what priority they had, sometimes on the grounds that air quality has improved this year as a by-product of restrictions to control the spread of the virus.
While many cities and large towns felt the benefit of a short-term reduction in air pollution, the long-term impact of the pandemic may be to make pollution worse as changed behaviour becomes entrenched even as economic activity is restored.
Figure 1: Evolution of NO2 concentration levels before and after the introduction of the first national lockdown
There are four main implications for policy that this analysis illustrates:
1. The pandemic does not lessen the need for action on air quality
2. Greater home working is not the answer to cleaner air
3. Policy needs to disincentivise car and other vehicle usage to improve air quality
4. Reducing car usage does not affect all pollutants equally
#AirPollution in cities fell over the course of the first national lockdown ??️
But it now exceeds pre-pandemic levels in 80% of places studied ??️
? Our new briefing calls for urgent action to prevent air pollution rising as Covid restrictions end.https://t.co/T5xmIh5gYW
— Centre for Cities (@CentreforCities) December 10, 2020
Air pollution is a killer. Research shows it causes 40,000 deaths a year. And a recent study suggested that 15 per cent of Covid deaths could be attributed to air pollution, through its harmful impact on cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. To reduce deaths in the future, the following needs to happen:
Those cities that have cancelled them should reverse their decisions, and those that have not brought proposals to consultation, despite poor air quality caused by traffic, should do so.
The implementation of charging Clean Air Zones will only be successful if people have alternatives to private vehicles. Expanding public transport usage must therefore be at the core of long-term strategies for cleaner air, which need to work hard to rebuild habits and confidence eroded by the pandemic.
A number of cities have put temporary measures in place to encourage walking and cycling, such as the pop-up cycle lanes in cities like Manchester, Bristol and London. If these measures are shown to be effective in encouraging people to change behaviour then they should be made permanent, and other cities should take note of the lessons from these experiments.
The current limit for PM2.5 is more than twice as high as the one recommended by the WHO. In March 2020, as the pandemic began, MPs voted not to introduce the WHO guidelines, and the current Bill includes only a commitment to set a target by 2022, with no certainty over what this target will be. As the Bill continues its passage, its amendment should be the first of a number of steps needed to bring down PM2.5 emissions.