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ClientEarth Communications

8 October 2020

Air pollution

UK Air Pollution: How clean is the air you breathe?

In early October, the UK Government published their latest figures on air pollution data for across the country. The data reveal that 75% of reporting zones still have illegal levels of air pollution. This demonstrates how the UK government has made almost no progress in meeting legal obligations that should have been met in 2010.

“Air pollution has been far above legal limits for 10 years and 2019 was no exception.”

Under existing laws, the UK Government has to report every year on where it is failing to meet legal limits for air pollution designed to protect people’s health. The UK is failing to meet legal limits of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, where the annual average concentration level cannot exceed 40µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air).

We’ve analysed the data for each of the zones across the UK to understand by how much they are breaching the EU legal limits. Find your local area in the table below.

3 out of 4 zones have illegally high air pollution

Zone nameMaximum modelled annual mean concentration (μg/m3)No. times over legal limit
Greater London Urban Area771.9
South Wales (includes Newport)641.6
Eastern (includes Cambridge and Norwich)571.4
Glasgow Urban Area561.4
West Midlands Urban Area (includes Birmingham)521.3
West Midlands521.3
The Potteries (includes Stoke on Trent)511.3
Southampton Urban Area511.3
Edinburgh Urban Area501.3
Teesside Urban Area491.2
North East491.2
West Yorkshire Urban Area481.2
Sheffield Urban Area481.2
South East (includes Bath)481.2
Yorkshire Humberside481.2
Liverpool Urban Area471.2
Greater Manchester Urban Area461.2
Portsmouth Urban Area461.2
North West Merseysidee461.2
Central Scotland461.2
Belfast Urban Area451.1
Reading/Wokingham Urban Area441.1
North Wales441.1
Nottingham Urban Area431.1
East Midlands431.1
Southend Urban Area431.1
Bristol Urban Area431.1
Bournemouth Urban Area421.1
Cardiff Urban Area421.1
South West421.1
North East Scotland411
Leicester Urban Area401
Kingston upon Hull401
Swansea Urban Area401
Birkenhead Urban Area391
Preston Urban Area381
Scottish Borders310.8
Northern Irelands290.7
Blackpool Urban Area260.7

To see areas covered by the zones, click here.

What does the data mean?

Air pollution affects the health and quality of life of people across the UK. In fact, it has been estimated that air pollution causes the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths every year.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that there may be no safe level for NO2 (this is already accepted for fine particulate matter), with a recent study showing health impacts at levels below existing legal limits for NO2.

Alarmingly, a growing body of evidence also highlights potential links between air pollution and Covid-19.

The 2019 data shows that we were breathing illegally polluted air right before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the lockdown led to a temporary decrease in NO2 levels in some areas, traffic and pollution levels are back on the rise in many towns and cities.

We think the UK Government and local authorities should not rely on temporary dips experienced during lockdown to evade the urgent need to clean up our air on a lasting basis.

Katie Nield, UK clean air lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “Air pollution has been far above legal limits for 10 years and 2019 was no exception. It is clear that the pandemic will not solve the problem in the long-term, with pollution already lurching back to pre-lockdown levels.”

The fight against UK air pollution

Air pollution is a huge national problem but it can be solved. Already we’ve taken the UK government to court three times and won over their failure to protect the UK public from toxic air pollution. Our court wins forced the government to produce new air quality plans. But the government is not acting fast enough.

It announced in April that those Clean Air Zones (CAZs) – which deter the most polluting vehicles from entering the most polluted parts of towns and cities – scheduled to be introduced this year in Leeds, Birmingham and Bath will be pushed back until at least January 2021 because of the pandemic.

Some cities such as Birmingham and Bath remain steadfast in their commitment to introduce CAZs. But others like Greater Manchester, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield are relaxing, reconsidering or even U-turning on their proposals.

Nield added: “This lack of action is extremely worrying given that initial studies suggest air pollution makes Covid-19 worse. If there was ever a right time for the government to do everything it can to reduce air pollution levels, it’s now. Instead, the government is sitting back as Clean Air Zone plans are being scrapped or watered down in areas across the country.”

London, which introduced its Ultra Low Emission Zone in April 2019, remains the most polluted zone but recorded the biggest reduction in pollution in 2019 from 2018 levels – a 13% drop in NO2 levels.

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