It’s time to clean up our air

Sarah Woolnough, CEO at leading lung charity Asthma + Lung UK, says despite local authorities being ordered to reduce levels of air pollution over five years ago, many are still not taking enough action to protect public health.

Air pollution is one of the biggest threats to human health on the planet. Not only is it responsible for up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK every year, but for those with lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it can lead to life-threatening asthma attacks or flare-ups. Shockingly, half of the people surveyed by Asthma + Lung UK with lung conditions said air pollution triggered their lung condition, and around 25 million people are currently living in urban areas with toxic air above legal limits. This figure includes 2.8 million children under 18 and at least 1.4 million people with asthma or COPD.

In 2017, over 60 local authorities were mandated by the Government to take urgent action to reduce air pollution in their towns and cities to levels within legal limits. Now, more than five years on, Asthma + Lung UK has examined which authorities have managed to provide cleaner air for residents in its new report .

The UK has been in breach of legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since these targets were first introduced in 2010. In 2017 following several legal cases brought in front of the High Court, local authorities were called upon by the government to take action to reduce high levels of this harmful pollutant.

With road traffic still the biggest contributor to air pollution in the country and vehicles producing the most NO2, the most effective way local authorities can improve air quality is by introducing clean air zones (CAZs) in areas where levels are dangerously high. These are defined areas where the most polluting vehicles incur a charge to enter.

Clean air zones were first mandated in five cities identified by the government as having illegal levels of NO2 in the UK Air Quality Plan of 2015: Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, and Southampton. But of all five, only Birmingham has so far rolled out a CAZ that charges private vehicles. Leeds, Southampton and Derby rejected the government plans altogether, and elected non-charging measures to reduce pollution instead. We’ve found these measures were not enough.

Leeds proposed the introduction of a CAZ in 2018, but then scrapped these plans in 2020 after securing funding for taxis, buses, coaches and HGVs to be upgraded, retrofitted or replaced to make them less polluting instead. But as our report states, despite the rapid uptake of vehicles with better emission standards, in 2021, Leeds still had air pollution levels 4.3 times higher than the guideline limits identified by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Upgrading public transport vehicles alone was not an effective approach and the short term impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on air quality in 2020 needs to be considered. With lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, there were fewer vehicles on the roads in 2020 anyway, which makes it hard to calculate the true impact pollution reducing measures implemented by local authorities like Leeds had that year.

In Southampton and Derby, air pollution fell below legal limits in 2021 so it was deemed a CAZ was not required, even though levels remained higher than the national average. Nottingham was still in breach of legal limits for NO2 in 2022 after abandoning its plans to introduce a CAZ in 2018 on the grounds that it wasn’t needed.

Birmingham has taken the most committed approach so far. The council introduced a CAZ last year, charging owners of cars, vans and taxis that did not meet the emission standards or have an exemption, £8 daily, or £50 a day for coaches, buses and HGVs, to enter parts of the city centre. A scrappage scheme was set up for people on lower incomes, and £2,000 grants were handed out for the purchase of low emission vehicles or the equivalent of three years of free public transport travel. Our report highlights the positive impact of these measures – a 13% reduction in NO2 levels compared with pre-pandemic levels in Birmingham six months on.

London has also led by example in air quality policy with the introduction of its congestion charge in 2003, an Ultra-low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019 to charge vehicles that did not meet specific emission standards.

70,000 Londoners have made the switch to electric vehicles and this number is set to grow even more with the ULEZ expanding to all London boroughs at the end of August this year. Uptake of electric vehicles in combination with schemes like ULEZ, promotion/adoption of public transport, and active travel can all help to make the air cleaner. NO2 reductions between 2016 and 2020 in London occurred at a rate which was five times faster than anywhere else in the country.

In contrast, in areas where clean air zones were planned but not implemented such as Greater Manchester and Liverpool, NO2 concentrations have been increasing in recent years. The latest data shows that in 2021, air pollution in Greater Manchester was 5.2 higher than the WHO recommended levels.

One of the obstacles local authorities have faced is resistance from residents and business owners concerned about the costs of implementing a CAZ scheme. But in Birmingham the council set up a communication campaign in advance to explain the aims of its CAZ which garnered support from residents, proving it can work.

As of January 2022, there were only six charging clean air zones in England: Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Portsmouth, and York. These regions have taken the right approach, but we want better roll-out of CAZs and ULEZs, more funding and guidance for traffic reduction measures around care homes, schools and hospitals, where people are most vulnerable to toxic air, better financial incentives for battery electric vehicles integration of clean air policies with wider respiratory health plans better communication between national and local Government regarding cleaner air, and for clean air plans to be designed together with communities, especially those at risk.

The threat from air pollution really cannot be overstated, and cleaning up our air is not something we can delay. Every local authority in areas where dirty air exceeds legal guidelines needs to take action now, and be given the proper support to do so, to save lives.

To read Zoning in on Clean Air or find out more about Asthma + Lung UK’s findings around air pollution visit here.

Sarah Woolnough, CEO, Asthma + Lung UK

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