Across the UK air pollution is still breaching legal limits despite years of legal challenges designed to force the Government to take action.  

The latest data for 2019 shows 33 out of 43 UK ‘national reporting zones’ levels of nitrogen dioxide breached legal limits. That included parts of London, Southampton, Edinburgh, the West Midlands and Bristol.  

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted by cars and trucks, and when it gets into human lungs it can irritate respiratory conditions like asthma, and over a long period of time can increase the likelihood of conditions such as stroke and heart disease.

Client Earth, an environmental law firm which analysed the UK government data, said people were breathing illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide right up to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The firm has taken the government to court three times in the last decade to force faster action on air quality.

Lockdown led to cleaner air

Air pollution levels dropped dramatically during lockdown as cars and trucks stayed off the road, but since restrictions began to ease pollution levels have been climbing rapidly. In many parts of the country, pollution is almost back to pre-Covid levels.  

ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield warned any temporary gains in air quality during the pandemic will not linger.

 “Air pollution has been far above legal limits for 10 years and 2019 was no exception,” she said.

“It is clear that the pandemic will not solve the problem in the long-term, with pollution already lurching back to pre-lockdown levels.” 

Clean Air Zones 

The Government has instructed local authorities across the country to take action on air pollution in their local areas. For many, this has meant designing new Clean Air Zones to reduce the number of polluting vehicles entering the centre of towns and cities. However, their rollout was delayed because of the pandemic.  

ClientEarth said it was essential councils press ahead with their plans. 

“We know that when backed by help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport, these schemes can really make a difference,” said Ms Nield. “But we’re yet to see a single Clean Air Zone up and running outside of London”.  

Earlier today authorities in Somerset confirmed Bath would launch its Clean Air Zone in March. The move will make Bath the first English city outside of London to charge polluting vehicles to enter the city centre. But other cities, including Bristol and Leeds, are reconsidering their proposals in light of the pandemic.  

Bath is set to be the first to introduce a congestion charge after London did so in 2003 (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty)

Government response  

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out air pollution has dropped dramatically since 2010. 

“But we know there is still more to do, which is why we are delivering a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle air pollution –  investing in green transport and working with local authorities to develop and implement local air quality plans,” they said.  

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