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 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 name Maximum modelled annual mean concentration (μg/m3) No. times over legal limit
Greater London Urban Area 77 1.9
South Wales (includes Newport) 64 1.6
Eastern (includes Cambridge and Norwich) 57 1.4
Glasgow Urban Area 56 1.4
West Midlands Urban Area (includes Birmingham) 52 1.3
West Midlands 52 1.3
The Potteries (includes Stoke on Trent) 51 1.3
Southampton Urban Area 51 1.3
Edinburgh Urban Area 50 1.3
Tyneside 49 1.2
Teesside Urban Area 49 1.2
North East 49 1.2
West Yorkshire Urban Area 48 1.2
Sheffield Urban Area 48 1.2
South East (includes Bath) 48 1.2
Yorkshire Humberside 48 1.2
Liverpool Urban Area 47 1.2
Greater Manchester Urban Area 46 1.2
Portsmouth Urban Area 46 1.2
North West Merseysidee 46 1.2
Central Scotland 46 1.2
Belfast Urban Area 45 1.1
Reading/Wokingham Urban Area 44 1.1
Coventry/Bedworth 44 1.1
North Wales 44 1.1
Nottingham Urban Area 43 1.1
East Midlands 43 1.1
Southend Urban Area 43 1.1
Bristol Urban Area 43 1.1
Bournemouth Urban Area 42 1.1
Cardiff Urban Area 42 1.1
South West 42 1.1
North East Scotland 41 1
Leicester Urban Area 40 1
Kingston upon Hull 40 1
Swansea Urban Area 40 1
Birkenhead Urban Area 39 1
Preston Urban Area 38 1
Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton 33 0.8
Scottish Borders 31 0.8
Northern Irelands 29 0.7
Highland 27 0.7
Blackpool Urban Area 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.

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 already 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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Darya Tryfanava