Gary McFarlane, CIEH Northern Ireland Director

Air quality has been a core public health issue since the mid 1800s. Although the pioneering clean air legislation of the early 1980s significantly improved the air quality in towns and cities across the UK, air quality remains a significant public health challenge.

In 2016, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Physicians estimated that about 40,000 people in the UK die every year due to outdoor air pollution, with disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected. They also estimated that air pollution costs the country £20 billion a year[1]. In a report published on the 11th of March 2019, Public Health England said that “air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long term exposure[2].”

Air quality and active travel are fundamentally linked

Traffic emissions, from private car usage as well as public transport, are one of the key sources of air pollution across the UK (although they are not the only source). The challenges around air quality are fundamentally linked to climate change. Achieving our greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets will invariably improve air quality. Likewise, efforts to address the primary sources of poor air quality – namely transport, domestic heating, and agriculture – will, if effective, reduce GHG emissions.

We need radical change and innovation

Addressing both climate change and air pollution will require radical change and innovation. It will also require joined up thinking across several policy areas including transport, planning, building standards and agriculture policy. Existing legislative frameworks should be reviewed and modernised. We urgently need the government to deliver on a new modern environment bill. And, of course, public health needs to be recognised as a key driver for both these challenges. These are not just environmental issues, they directly affect our health and wellbeing.

There’s little to celebrate about the pandemic, but there are some positives

Since March 2020 life as we know it has been turned on its head. Old ways of doing things have been replaced as we have adapted to living with a global pandemic.

Whilst there has been little to celebrate about this pandemic there are some positives to take. One of these is the impact on air quality. Government restrictions imposed at the start of the pandemic meant that much of the working population has reinvented how they go about their daily work. We have discovered that we no longer need to travel to meetings or dedicated office facilities to work effectively.

The change in our work travel patterns has been radical and has resulted in significant reductions in the use of both private car use and public transport. As a result there have been significant improvements[3]:

  • Monthly average daily traffic counts in April 2020 fell by 69% compared to April 2019.
  • NO2 and PM2.5 concentrations fell respectively by 38.3% and 16.5%.
  • Improvements were largest at urban traffic sites.

We must ensure improvements are not temporary

Whilst this data demonstrates the positive impact of lockdown on air quality, as life returns to “normal” there is a real possibility that without innovation and joined up thinking the kinds of improvements highlighted above could be temporary.

We must use the positives from this pandemic to seek to ensure that we do not regress back to some of our pre pandemic routines and behaviours. We should continue to use technology to avoid the need for lengthy journeys to meetings that could be much more efficiently conducted remotely. We need to transition our towns and cities into places that are focused on living, retail and cultural spaces complete with green space and active travel infrastructure rather than office spaces.

Local authorities and environmental health teams have been leading the work on air quality

Since the clean air legislation of the early 1980s, local authorities and environmental health teams have been at the forefront of efforts to improve local air quality. Local authorities use a wide range of interventions and tools to deliver improvements which have clear and obvious public health benefits, apart from just cleaner air.

This case study illustrates a fantastic example of how one local authority, Greater Manchester, has integrated their efforts to link both their contribution to net zero with air quality improvements. To achieve their ambitious targets will involve “a million more journeys on foot, bike or public transport every single day”.  The benefits to public health and the environment if this is achieved are obvious.

[1] https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/improving-outdoor-air-quality-and-health-review-of-interventions

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749120367002