Press release: 1 November 2022
Air pollution bounces back across UK as government poised to scrap pollution laws
- New air pollution figures released by the UK Government and analysed by the environmental law charity ClientEarth reveal that the number of areas in the UK reporting illegal pollution doubled in just one year.
- Every single one of the UK’s air pollution reporting zones is tracking pollution far above maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
- The findings come as hundreds of Britain’s environmental laws – including those covering air quality – face being axed under a new government bill.
The latest UK air pollution figures show that, in 2021, 10 of the 43 national reporting zones suffered with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. This is twice as many as in 2020, when lockdowns led to a temporary dip in NO2 levels across the country.
In its summary report, the Government admits that the most recent data is still impacted by "the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions which continued to reduce traffic on many roads in 2021".
Air pollution is slowly creeping back to pre-lockdown levels, but two zones – Greater Manchester and Nottingham – are already registering even higher levels of NO2 pollution than in 2019.
But in a major development, 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.
This means that the current UK legal limit for NO2 is now four times higher than the WHO recommends. So even though some zones are not illegally polluted, people are still breathing dangerously dirty air, with all 43 UK reporting zones above WHO guidelines for NO2.
This is playing out against the backdrop of the introduction of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Its aim is to “revoke certain retained EU law”, including on air pollution, without any clear indication of whether or how these legal protections will be replaced.
ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield said: “Unsurprisingly, air pollution is rebounding after the lockdowns. There needs to be concerted effort from Government and local authorities to reduce air pollution for the sake of people's health.
“But it looks like we’re heading in the opposite direction. 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.”
Air pollution in the UK has been estimated to contribute to the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths every year. Toxic air can increase the risk of asthma attacks and strokes, aggravate breathing conditions and increase the risk of these leading to hospitalisation or worse. Research has recently emerged on exactly how air pollution can cause lung cancer.
Under the 2021 Environment Act, the Government is proposing setting a weak commitment to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels to an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) by 2040. According to health experts, campaigners and local leaders, this would be too late and would fail yet another generation of children. The Environment Act doesn’t include any provisions on NO2.
Jon, a father of three in Newcastle and a member of the Clean Air Parents’ Network, said: “As I walk my children to and from school during the day and to after-school activities in the evening, we are exposed alternately to traffic fumes and chimney smoke. We cannot escape it and I worry for the health of my children. When will our leaders stop procrastinating and do something to clean up our air?”
Notes to editors:
In order to meet legal limits, all relevant locations in a zone must have an annual average nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level of 40 µg/m3 or below. The World Health Organization recommends an annual average level of 10µg/m3. These are the zones that report levels that are over the current legal limit:
No. times over legal limit
No. times over WHO recommended levels
Greater Manchester Urban Area
Greater London Urban Area
West Midlands Urban Area
Sheffield Urban Area
Glasgow Urban Area
Nottingham Urban Area
West Yorkshire Urban Area
Liverpool Urban Area
Bristol Urban Area
To see areas covered by the zones, click here (page 53).
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.