UK Air Pollution Congested London Street

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 83% 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.

“Almost ten years after legal limits should have been met, it is astounding that only 7 out of 43 zones have legal levels of air pollution.”

These statistics are released as part of a legal requirement under the EU Ambient Air Quality directive. All EU member states must report on levels of a number of pollutants to the European Commission. In the UK we are 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.

More than 4 out of 5 zones have illegally high air pollution

Zone name Maximum modelled annual mean concentration (μg/m3) No. times over legal limit
Greater London Urban Area 89 2.2
South Wales 62 1.6
West Midlands Urban Area 58 1.5
Glasgow Urban Area 61 1.5
Tyneside 54 1.4
Teesside Urban Area 55 1.4
Southampton Urban Area 55 1.4
Eastern 54 1.4
West Midlands 54 1.4
North East 54 1.4
Greater Manchester Urban Area 50 1.3
West Yorkshire Urban Area 53 1.3
Sheffield Urban Area 53 1.3
Portsmouth Urban Area 50 1.3
The Potteries 53 1.3
Coventry/Bedworth 50 1.3
Edinburgh Urban Area 51 1.3
South East 51 1.3
North West  Merseyside 50 1.3
Yorkshire  Humberside 53 1.3
Central Scotland 51 1.3
Liverpool Urban Area 48 1.2
Nottingham Urban Area 46 1.2
Bristol Urban Area 47 1.2
Bournemouth Urban Area 46 1.2
Reading/Wokingham Urban Area 46 1.2
Southend Urban Area 48 1.2
Cardiff Urban Area 46 1.2
Belfast Urban Area 49 1.2
East Midlands 48 1.2
North Wales 49 1.2
Leicester Urban Area 43 1.1
Kingston upon Hull 45 1.1
Swansea Urban Area 42 1.1
South West 44 1.1
North East Scotland 44 1.1
Birkenhead Urban Area 40 1
Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton 37 0.9
Northern Ireland 35 0.9
Blackpool Urban Area 30 0.8
Preston Urban Area 32 0.8
Scottish Borders 30 0.8
Highland 26 0.7

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. Yet the latest 2018 data show there has been almost no progress in meeting legal limits of air pollution in the UK.

Compared to 2017 levels, only one additional zone came into compliance in 2018 – Birkenhead Urban Area, which includes Cheshire West and Chester Council and Wirral Metropolitan Council.

Greater London, South Wales and Glasgow are the zones with the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the UK.

Andrea Lee, ClientEarth’s Clean Air Campaigns and Policy Manager, said: “Almost ten years after legal limits should have been met, it is astounding that only 7 out of 43 zones have legal levels of air pollution. This is not simply a failure by the government to comply with its legal duties but, most importantly, it is a failure to protect the health of people across the country from toxic air.”

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. There is still more to be done.

The government’s approach to tackling the crisis was to direct local councils to reduce air a pollution to within the legal limit within the shortest possible time. But this has mostly led to delays and weak proposals as local authorities lack the resources, capacity and leadership to get to grip with the problem.

Andrea added: “Local authorities clearly cannot deal with this matter on their own. We need leadership and action on a national scale.”

The newly released Environment Bill has outlined legal targets for air pollution but they fail to show leadership.

Katie Nield, clean air lawyer for ClientEarth, explains: “The government’s commitment to set a new air quality target is far from ground-breaking. To show real ambition to protect people’s health, the Bill needs to include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organization guideline levels by 2030 at the latest – which it has not done. The evidence is clear so it’s deeply concerning that the government has failed to do this.”

“We have been breathing harmful levels of pollution for too long now and as it stands this Bill is another missed opportunity for people’s right to breathe clean air.”

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Darya Tryfanava