Skip to content

Select your location.

It looks like your location does not match the site. We think you may prefer a ClientEarth site which has content specific to your location. Select the site you'd like to visit below.

English (USA)

Location successfully changed to English (Global)

Follow us

Support us Opens in a new window Donate
Return to mob menu

Search the site

ClientEarth Communications

1st November 2022

Air pollution

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

At the end of September, the UK Government published their latest figures on air pollution data for across the country.

Air pollution is rebounding after the lockdowns.

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. In the UK, the law on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution – one of the most harmful pollutants – says annual average concentrations cannot exceed 40 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air).

The latest figures show that, in 2021, 10 of the 43 national reporting zones suffered with illegal levels of NO2 pollution. This is twice as many as in 2020, when lockdowns led to a temporary dip in NO2 levels across the country.

But more importantly, as the weight of evidence on the health impacts of air pollution has increased, global health experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) last year radically overhauled their pollution guidelines. The WHO recommended guideline for annual average NO2 pollution is now 10 µg/m - four times lower than the UK’s current legal limit.

This means that while some parts of the UK may currently be registering  levels of pollution that are within formal legal limits, the WHO  tell a different story. Based on what scientists now know, the air in towns and cities across the UK is still putting people’s health in jeopardy.

Air pollution above levels recommended by the WHO across the UK

Zone nameMaximum modelled annual mean concentration (μg/m3)No. times over WHO recommended level
Greater Manchester Urban Area525.2
Greater London Urban Area505

West Midlands Urban Area (includes Birmingham)

South Wales (includes Newport)494.9
Sheffield Urban Area454.5
Glasgow Urban Area454.5
Nottingham Urban Area444.4
West Yorkshire Urban Area434.3
Liverpool Urban Area434.3
Bristol Urban Area434.3
Leicester Urban Area393.9
The Potteries (includes Stoke on Trent)393.9
Belfast Urban Area393.9
South East (includes Bath)393.9
Portsmouth Urban Area383.8
Southampton Urban Area383.8
Teesside Urban Area373.7
Kingston upon Hull373.7
South West373.7
East Midlands373.7
Edinburgh Urban Area363.6
Eastern (includes Cambridge and Norwich)363.6
Central Scotland363.6
North West Merseyside353.5
Yorkshire Humberside353.5
West Midlands353.5
North East Scotland353.5
North Wales353.5
North East343.4
Preston Urban Area333.3
Bournemouth Urban Area323.2
Southend Urban Area323.2
Birkenhead Urban Area313.1
Cardiff Urban Area313.1
Swansea Urban Area303
Reading/Wokingham Urban Area282.8
Blackpool Urban Area252.5
Northern Irelands252.5
Scottish Borders222.2

To see areas covered by the zones, click here.

What does the data mean?

The 2021 data – the latest available – is still widely impacted by Covid-19. The Government admits that "the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions continued to reduce traffic on many roads in 2021". So next year’s data may be worse if action isn’t taken nationally and locally to tackle key sources such as road transport.

That’s very worrying given that 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.

The harms from air pollution have been well-documented by the scientific community. A recent example is a study showing that unborn foetuses have air pollution in their lungs and brains before they take their first breath.

The fight against UK air pollution

Air pollution is a huge problem across the UK, 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 and local authorities to produce new air quality plans to show how they are going to meet legal limits in the shortest time possible. This has led to the introduction of Clean Air Zones across the country and over £800m being given to local authorities to provide help and support for people to move to cleaner forms of transport.

But recent developments show the government is looking to do away with the very legal protections that have led to this progress.

Clean air legal protections at risk

The UK Government has recently tabled a new proposed law called the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Its aim is to “revoke certain retained EU law” without any clear indication of whether or how these legal protections will be replaced. This could include the clean air laws that we can currently use to hold the government to account over dirty air.

Our lawyer Katie Nield said: “Instead of putting forward plans to get to grips with this public health crisis, ministers are presenting a deeply worrying Bill in Parliament which could rip out the legal protections in our statute book.

“Science has never been clearer on the harms caused by air pollution – even at low concentrations – and meanwhile our Government is proposing a future where we could have little protection from dirty air.”

More on air pollution