Air quality in the UK: What needs to happen for an effective post-pandemic recovery.

Cities are major contributors to climate change, despite only covering a small percentage of the Earth’s surface. Across the globe, cities account for nearly 80% of the world’s energy consumption and over half of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Whilst many cities have committed to making progress towards the targets set out in the Paris Agreement and are working together in alliances such as the Global Covenant of Mayors, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity to re-evaluate a green recovery.

Perhaps the most obvious contributor to climate change in terms of cities is air pollution. Indeed, the first lockdown in 2020 provided a stark reminder of just how polluted our cities are. Across the world, blue skies were observed and the Himalayas were visible from 100 miles away for the first time in a generation.

During this period in the UK, there was a 69% reduction in traffic overall and early reports on the corresponding air pollution showed a 42% decrease in surface-level nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across the entire country, compared to the average over the previous 5 years.

In fact, in cities like Glasgow, Warrington and Oxford, NO2 concentration levels more than halved. However, when restrictions were lifted, air pollution soon returned to its pre-pandemic levels in 39 of 49 locations studied, despite not having returned to previous levels of economic activity.

These levels could be attributed to the fact that once restrictions started to ease and many began to return to work, taking public transport was deemed risky and car travel was advocated for essential journeys. There was also an increase in larger vehicles on the roads offering a variety of delivery services for those who remained at home.

As the restrictions are set to ease further, the concern is that these levels will continue to rise and perhaps even begin to reverse previous progress made towards the reduction of air pollution. The need to maintain a level of social distancing looks set to remain and the ‘new normal’ could potentially entrench such behaviours.

It is clear, then, that policy measures are urgently required to implement changes that will contribute to more sustainable solutions. In recognition of this, in May 2020 the UK government announced a £250m emergency active travel fund intended to promote a greener post-pandemic recovery.

Many local authorities set about using the funds to execute experimental traffic orders and create low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) across the country. One seemingly controversial measure that was adopted was the installation of bollards or large planters to block residential streets, either partially or fully, to cars and larger vehicles.

Some councils saw a backlash against these changes with residents staging protests, arguing that the process was undemocratic and that road closures simply shifted the traffic onto other nearby roads rather than reducing it. This led to the reversal of the measures in some areas but, one could argue, if something is not working, more needs to be done rather than less. 

Safer walking and cycling options are one aspect. More reliable and cheaper public transport is another. But there is a myriad of other use cases which need to be accommodated for such as people with mobility issues, night shift workers, carers etc. To effectively change behaviour, more need to be done to align policy with local needs.

An example of where it has worked, however, is the London Borough of Waltham Forest. They began to implement LTN measures, which included road closures amongst other things, in 2014. They have seen up to a 25% decrease in exposure to air pollution which, according to a 2018 study by King’s College London, equates to an increase in individual life expectancy by 1.5 months. 

Positive behavioural changes have also been recorded in the borough, with research indicating a significant decrease in car ownership and a significant increase in healthier activity, including walking and cycling. 

Whilst the Waltham Forest example was implemented over a longer period of time, the types of experimentation orders that have been used during the pandemic are a good way of getting things done at a much faster pace. They provide a set of tools and interventions that can be made quickly without the planning conflicts that often occur in lengthy consultation and investment processes. 

If done right, LTNs could have a huge impact on air quality in urban areas. To be truly effective, however, there also needs to be collaboration between actors at all levels, and the prioritisation of matters that mean something locally as well as nationally. 

They should be planned with concurrent consultation and alongside other measures that are specifically taking into account the needs, both socially and economically, of the local population and which promote behavioural change. 

At a city level, plans to reduce air pollution could also be linked with other aspects of climate change. Examples include efforts to reduce overall consumption levels, affordable energy for residents, affordable homes and mixed urban developments where working and living in closer proximity is possible. 

Nature-based solutions aimed at increasing the natural bio-diversity in cities would further help to reduce air pollution. These types of projects have also proved to be very effective at getting communities more invested in the improvement of their area.

Up to 80 cities in the world are responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as was demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, the effect of what they do has an almost immediate effect on the climate. Air pollution in the UK needs to be addressed urgently so that the opportunity for a greener recovery coming out of lockdown is not missed. 

Tough policy measures are required but policy needs to be coupled with collaborative involvement at all levels to ensure that the solutions are not only reducing emissions but are also acknowledging and easing the stresses and difficulties of living in busy urban environments.