Air pollution in the UK

Government action to improve air quality is important because of the evidence of negative health effects and environmental damage caused by air pollutants. Tackling air pollution requires international, national and local action.

The annual report Air Pollution in the UK summarises air quality modelling and measurement data from the national air pollution monitoring networks, operated on behalf of Defra and the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  It includes detailed pollution data, trends, maps and analyses of air pollution over a calendar year. It also includes a summary of the data that is submitted to the European Commission for reporting requirements.

UK Air Quality Strategy

The UK Government and the devolved administrations published the most recent Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in July 2007. The strategy contains policies for the assessment and management of UK air quality and implementation of European Union (EU) and International agreements.

The strategy sets out a way forward for work and planning on air quality issues, sets out the air quality standards and objectives to be achieved, introduces a new policy framework for tackling fine particles, and identifies potential new national policy measures which modelling indicates could give further health benefits and move closer towards meeting the strategy’s objectives.

Linking air quality and climate change policies

In March 2010, Defra and the devolved administrations published the document Air Pollution: Action in a Changing Climate, which highlights the additional health benefits that can be achieved through closer integration of air quality and climate change policies in future.

This ‘forward look’ document does not replace the current air quality strategy but accounts for the rapid development of climate change policy since the strategy was published in 2007.  In particular, the publication includes the following key messages:

  • Air pollution often originates from the same activities that contribute to climate change (notably transport and electricity generation) so it makes sense to consider how the linkages between air quality and climate change policy areas can be managed to best effect.
  • The UK’s commitment to build a Low Carbon Economy by 2050 will reduce air pollution but the choices made to get there will affect the extent of air quality improvements.  Optimizing climate policy decisions to account for air pollution could yield additional benefits of approximately £24 billion by 2050.
  • Air quality/climate change co-benefits can be realised through actions such as promoting low-carbon vehicles and renewable sources of energy that do not involve combustion.  At the same time, actions that tackle climate change but damage air quality must be avoided.
  • Action will be needed at international, EU, national, regional and local levels to make sure air quality and climate change policies are integrated to maximise the co-benefits of tackling both air pollution and climate change together and ensure ambitious but realistic air quality targets are set for the future.

Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry into Air Quality

The Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) announced its intention to carry out an inquiry into air quality in the UK on 21 October 2009.

The purpose of the enquiry was to “assess whether the Government is developing an effective strategy for meeting its obligations under the EU Air Quality Directives. The committee also examined whether the strategy is enough to ensure that air pollution is reduced to acceptable levels across all the UK.

The committee invited written evidence that looked at:

  • the monitoring and modelling systems used by the government and whether these provide an adequate measure of air quality;
  • the extent to which the government fully understands and has identified the health and environmental risks caused by poor air quality;
  • the extent to which the delivery chain for air quality is coherent, integrated, coordinated and effective and whether the bodies with responsibility for managing air quality have appropriate incentives, understand their role and responsibilities, and are adequately resourced; and
  • the steps that need to be taken to ensure that air quality targets will be met in the future.

The Parliamentary Select Committee published its EAC Report on air quality in the UK on 22 March 2010 with recommendations for government to do more to raise awareness of the health and environmental impacts of air pollution and to work with local authorities to improve air quality.

Our response to the EAC Report recommendations for air quality improvement published in November 2010, includes some of the measures the government is taken to improve air quality (Official Documents website).

EAC follow-up enquiry June 2011

The Committee recently launched a new inquiry into air quality in the UK to assess progress since their previous report in March 2010, in particular to assess whether the Government is developing an effective strategy for meeting its obligations under the EU Air Quality Directives for particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

In following up the Environmental Audit Committee’s previous report, and the Government’s response to that report, the Committee examined the latest scientific evidence about the health effects of poor air quality and environmental damage that air pollution causes, including Government research.  Their report is expected to be published soon.

Action by others

Individuals and businesses can all play a role in improving air quality.

The transport industry can play a key role in improving air quality by adopting higher vehicle standards and fitting older vehicles with technology that helps mitigate pollution (retrofitting), complying with Low Emission Zones and through fuel efficient driving.

Civil society organisations can help increase people’s awareness of air quality issues, help people protect themselves from harmful levels of air pollution, and encourage the public to take action to improve air quality. Those with health conditions such as heart disease or asthma can register for notification schemes that let them know when air pollution is at higher than average levels, and then avoid prolonged periods of time outdoors on those days if this makes their symptoms worse.

Consumers can also play a significant role. Making sustainable transport choices such as walking, cycling and using public transport instead of driving, increasing home energy efficiency, and considering air quality when buying a car, all benefit the community through improved air quality.

Page last modified: 7 November 2011

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