Urgent action needed to prevent air pollution rising

With toxic air set to rise significantly as lockdown restrictions end, Centre for Cities is urging councils to press ahead with their stalled pollution reduction plans.

The new analysis shows that, while the spring lockdown reduced NO2 levels by 38 per cent on average across 49 cities and large towns, they rose again in the second half of the year as activity increased.

As a result, NO2 levels have now hit or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in around 80 per cent of places studied during the second half of 2020. This is despite 98 per cent of the country remaining under significant lockdown restrictions – raising concerns that air quality will significantly worsen once life returns to normal next year.

The organisation I stressing that policy makers must urgently revisit stalled pre-pandemic plans to reduce air pollution – which has been linked to 40,000 UK deaths per year. It has been reported that since March, many councils – including Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield – have shelved their pollution reduction plans, pointing to initial improvements in air quality. This position is not viable as pollution has already returned to pre-lockdown levels and is likely to rise further.

Local authorities are being urged to discourage car usage by introducing clean air zones that charge drivers, encourage more public transport usage through improvements to bus, rail and tram systems and improve cycling and walking infrastructure to encourage more active forms of travel.

Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: “Toxic air has contributed to the deaths of thousands of Covid-19 victims this year and, even after the pandemic ends, will remain a big threat to health – particularly for those living in urban areas. City leaders can reduce threat of air pollution, but it will take political will. Discouraging car usage will be unpopular in the short-term but, if coupled with the necessary improvements to public transport, the long-term benefits to public health and the economy will be huge and our cities will become better places to live. Now is not the time for politicians to delay on this.”