Press release: 8 October 2020

New data shows 75% of UK ‘zones’ illegally polluted – don’t pause action now, say lawyers

New figures released by the UK Government and analysed by environmental law charity ClientEarth reveal that three quarters of air quality reporting zones still chart illegal levels of air pollution.

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 figures show that in 2019, the government was still breaching legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution – limits that should have been met in 2010 – in 33 out of the 43 national reporting zones.

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 already back on the rise in many towns and cities. Alarmingly, a growing body of evidence also highlights potential links between air pollution and Covid-19.

ClientEarth lawyers are urging the UK Government and local authorities not to rely on temporary dips experienced during lockdown to evade the urgent need to clean up our air on a lasting basis, and point towards court orders demanding the UK’s leaders take urgent action to crack down on toxic air.

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.

“Government evidence shows that Clean Air Zones are the most effective way of quickly slashing illegal pollution levels. We know that when backed by help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport, these schemes can really make a difference. But we’re yet to see a single Clean Air Zone up and running outside of London and this new data is just further proof of government apathy in tackling dirty air.”

The government 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 ManchesterBristol, Leeds and Sheffield are relaxing, reconsidering or even U-turning on their proposals.

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.

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.”

While action must be taken by local authorities, the government remains legally responsible for ensuring that the UK meets legal limits in the shortest possible time. This means ensuring that the plans produced by local authorities are good enough and produced quickly enough, but also includes further action by ministers at a national level.


Notes to editors

Air pollution is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the biggest environmental health risk in the world. It also tops the list of environment health hazards in the UK and is estimated to cause the equivalent of up to 40,000 early deaths a year.

Diesel vehicles are the main source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in towns and cities in the UK. Studies have shown this gas has adverse effects on human health. NOdamages the respiratory system: it inflames the lining of the lung; reduces immunity to lung infections such as bronchitis; exacerbates breathing conditions, such as asthma, and increases the risk of hospitalisation or worse; and it can stunt lung growth in children. It has also been associated with higher rates of cancer, heart diseases, heart and asthma attacks and low birthweight.

The UK Government has reported these new air pollution figures as part of its responsibilities under the Ambient Air Quality Directive. The data can be found here. In order to meet legal levels, a zone must have an annual average nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level at 40µg/m3 or below. These are some of the zones that are over the limit:

  • Greater London (1.9x over)
  • South Wales (excluding Cardiff) (1.6x over)
  • Glasgow Urban Area (1.4x over)
  • Eastern (includes Cambridge) (1.4x over)
  • Southampton (1.3x over)
  • Edinburgh Urban Area (1.3x over)
  • West Midlands Urban Area (includes Birmingham) (1.3x over)
  • West Midlands (excluding Birmingham) (1.3x over)
  • The Potteries (includes Stoke on Trent) (1.3x over)
  • Greater Manchester Urban Area (1.2x over)
  • West Yorkshire Urban Area (includes Leeds) (1.2x over)
  • Sheffield Urban Area (1.2x over)
  • Belfast Urban Area (1.1x over)
  • Bristol Urban Area (1.1x over)

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.

ClientEarth has previously won three cases against the UK Government over the country’s illegal and harmful levels of air pollution. As a result, the government has directed over 60 English councils to identify local solutions to reduce pollution to within the legal limit in the shortest possible time.

In England, responsibility for ensuring that air quality limit values are met rests with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland responsibility is devolved to the Welsh Ministers, the Scottish Ministers and the Department for the Environment of Northern Ireland.

Research by the UK government shows that Clean Air Zones are the best way to quickly reduce illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in our towns and cities. Recent statistics show that London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) has reduced nitrogen dioxide pollution by up to 37% in the 3-month period before the lockdown, compared to a scenario where no ULEZ was in place.

Several UK studies are suggesting links between air pollution and Covid-19:

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.