Girl wearing face mask covering nose and mouth facing camera.

Air pollution solutions: clean air for the UK

How do we improve dirty air in our towns and countryside? And how can we ditch diesel, the biggest source of roadside pollution? Aaron Kiely has some answers to air pollution.
photo of Aaron Kiely, Friends of the Earth
By Aaron Kiely    |      Published:  10 Jan 2018    |      7 minute read

I’ve been investigating some of the solutions we need to get the UK breathing clean air again. And I've found out some things that might surprise you.

For example, I discovered that tackling air pollution could lead to significant health benefits for us all – including drivers. And I found that cleaning up our air could actually help create jobs and sustainable economic growth.

Why is air pollution a problem?

Let's recap on the UK's dirty air problem.

You can’t always see or smell air pollution, but it's there. In fact, most places in the UK have illegal pollution levels, and our health is suffering as a result.

Dirty air leads to worsening asthma symptoms, heart disease and even lung cancer. It increases the risk of children growing up with smaller lungs and has been associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia.

Data from the World Health Organisation shows air pollution is a serious problem across most of our major towns and cities — from Birmingham to Swansea to Glasgow. The medical journal The Lancet and the Royal College of Physicians have both referred to this data.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who is calling for action on air pollution after losing her daughter to asthma, facing camera.
Rosamund lost her daughter Ella to asthma
Credit: Neil Baird

“It’s in all our interests to care about pollution,” says Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, from Lewisham, London, who lost her daughter Ella to severe asthma and now campaigns for clean air.

“This is where I think my daughter was cheated. She was ill and she wasn’t breathing clean air. That’s what we should be fighting for: for our children to breathe clean air.”

Air pollution also makes already existing inequalities worse.

Certain groups are deeply affected by poor quality air: those living in areas of most deprivation, people of colour, pregnant women, children, older people and people with existing health conditions.

Air pollution and carbon emissions

There are many reasons to tackle air pollution on health grounds alone. But we have to do it to protect our planet and nature too.

Transport accounts for a whopping quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions. It’s critical that we rapidly move away from vehicles that run on diesel and petrol. In other words, we need far fewer polluting diesel and petrol vehicles on the road.

Air pollution affects nature

This might come as a surprise. Conservation charity Plantlife has revealed the impact that air pollution has on plants and wildlife.

“In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, more than 90% of sensitive wildlife habitats had excessive nitrogen levels in 2014. This is causing declines in the quality, quantity and diversity of wildlife habitats and species [in rural and urban areas].”

This is the serious damage done by nitrogen emissions from transport, power stations, farming and industry.

So we’ve got three huge reasons to act – for people’s health, for our planet, and to protect nature.

Now for some solutions.

7 solutions to air pollution

1. Diesel phase-out by 2025

Diesel vehicles are the biggest source of NOxair pollution at the roadside, where the problem is most acute.

Analysis has revealed 59% of the UK population — 40 million people — live in areas where diesel pollution threatens health.

The graphic below is from the government's 2017 Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide in the UK. It shows the main culprits in roadside pollution.

NOx is the catch-all term for the nitrogen oxides that cause air pollution – nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Average roadside concentrations of NOx by source of emissions, UK, 2015

Average roadside emissions of NOx

Source: National modelling 2017.
Notes: "Local road traffic'" in the large pie chart is the estimate of the proportion of local NOx roadside concentrations contributed by traffic on that road and is shown in greater detail in the smaller chart. "Road traffic background" is the estimate of NOx concentrations contributed by traffic on other roads. Figures may sum to more than 100% due to rounding. HGVs = heavy good vehicles.

Put simply: it’s time for diesel to go.

The government acknowledges we have to phase out diesels from the road, but it wants to start this process in 2040 with a ban on sales of new diesels and petrol vehicles.

This is way behind Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, which want to take similar action far sooner. Paris and other major cities are also committing to diesel phase-outs by 2025.

Phasing out diesel is clearly crucial to cleaning up the air – but it’s not enough to get the job done. We need urgent action right now to stop diesel polluting the air we breathe.

Camden Friends of the Earth. Clean Air Week of Action stall in street with people holding Clean Air Zone sign.

2. Clean Air Zones

Evidence from Europe, and modelling by the UK government, shows that restricting where the dirtiest vehicles can go in towns and cities is the most effective way to rapidly reduce illegal levels of air pollution in the shortest possible time.

These schemes – known as Clean Air Zones – will soon be implemented in Derby, Nottingham, Southampton, Birmingham and Leeds. London will develop its own restrictions on polluting vehicles.

But Clean Air Zones are needed in many more places – 53 by our count – and must be strengthened to apply to cars as well as larger vehicles.

Clean Air Zones would especially benefit the most vulnerable and deprived people who are disproportionately exposed to poor air quality.

That’s why we at Friends of the Earth are supporting lots of local grassroots campaigns for effective Clean Air Zones – and we'd like you to join us.

Blue and green Low Emission Zone road sign, London
T-Charge is a step towards stricter Ultra Low Emission Zones in London
Credit: Chris Steer

3. T-Charge

What's the T-Charge? The T-Charge, or Emissions Surcharge, is London’s £10 toxicity charge brought in by the mayor in late 2017. It's an attempt to stop cars registered before 2006 from driving around the capital. Generally it’s safe to assume that the older the car, the more pollution it pumps out.

The reality is that nearly 10,000 early deaths are caused in London each year by the capital’s toxic air. So the Mayor is right to try to dissuade drivers bringing the oldest, dirtiest vehicles into central London.

But if you're going to charge people or restrict people driving their cars, you have to do it in a fair way. At the moment the T-Charge risks disproportionately affecting London’s poorer drivers who can’t afford more modern cars.

The government must accelerate ways for people to ditch their dirty old diesels and get cleaner vehicles.

4. Diesel scrappage

How many people currently driving particularly old, polluting vehicles would have upgraded to something cleaner by now if they had the means?

What’s more, we know many people bought diesels in good faith, having been misled by successive governments and manufacturers alike as to their supposed green qualities.

Government must get diesel manufacturers to cough up and help fund an effective scrappage scheme.

This will help people shift out of their polluting cars and into clean vehicles or, even better, get them into car clubs, cycling and walking more, and using public transport.

We know the transition to less car use won’t happen overnight. For various reasons, a lot of people will still need to drive.

We have to make sure our towns and city centres are accessible, people are able to be mobile, and they're places where both people and nature can thrive. This requires boldness of vision and real investment and we’d all be better off for it.

5. Electric vehicles

Part of the solution to dirty air should be a transition towards electric vehicles. And the shift is already happening – sales of electric vehicles continue to soar.

2017 saw the opening of the electric taxi factory in Coventry, creating jobs and cleaning up our taxi fleet.

From 1 January 2018 all new taxis registered in London have to be zero-emissions capable. This is something that many taxi drivers are welcoming. After all they're the ones breathing in the fumes all day.

Electric vehicles and battery development provide an opportunity to be at the forefront of a growing global market and to create jobs.

Indeed, a government consultation document shows that “In 2016 UK-manufactured Nissan Leafs accounted for almost 20% of battery electric car sales across Europe, and the UK had the highest sales of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in the EU.”

Electric cars are predicted to be as cheap to own as petrol cars in the very near future. And improvements in battery technology should make “range anxiety” – the concern that you don't get very far before the battery needs recharging – increasingly a thing of the past.

There is a problem with electric vehicles, though. Electric vehicles won't sufficiently reduce particulate matter (PM), the other toxic pollutant emitted by road transport.

There's no such thing as a 100% clean vehicle. Even if there are no exhaust emissions, the brake and tyre wear and road abrasion also contribute to PM air pollution. As Professor Frank Kelly of Kings College London says “our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars”.

The Big Lemon bus company launching the UK's first solar-powered bus in Brighton
The Big Lemon bus company, based in Brighton, launched the UK's first solar-powered bus in 2017
Credit: Kelly Dibbert

6. Public transport

We need a properly-funded, integrated public transport system that is capable of dealing with increased demand as we get more people off our roads.

There's a huge way to go in many areas, with patchy bus services (particularly in more rural areas) as well as crammed and ever-more expensive trains.

Research by the Campaign for Better Transport has even found that since 2010 bus services in England and Wales alone have been cut by 33%. The direction of travel for our public transport is not looking good.

But think of the words of NHS architect Nye Bevan. He said the NHS will "last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”.

Cyclist wearing breathing mask, on road with bus and cars
Cycling is good for you and the planet - but cyclists need clean air too
Credit: Leonardo Patrizi

7. Walking and cycling

Many of my happiest memories are of bike rides with family and friends or of long strolls with loved ones. We know walking and cycling are great for your health too.

So can you believe that the government is only spending £1.38 per person annually in England (outside London) on cycling? This is in contrast to roads spending equating to around £84 per person.

That doesn’t sound like the right balance to me. Fortunately, MPs from different parties don’t think it’s right either. They think we should eventually be spending more like £20 per person.

Cycling has to be made safer too. In a survey of people living in 7 major UK cities, the cycling charity Sustrans found that 78% want more protected bike routes to make cycling safer, “even when this could mean less space for other road traffic”.

Costs of cleaning up air pollution

How should we pay for cleaning up air pollution in our towns, cities and countryside? Here are 2 of Friends of the Earth’s solutions.

1. Clean Air Fund

Friends of the Earth has done the maths and worked out we need at least £1.2bn to fund the 53 Clean Air Zones required in England.

That may sound a lot, but it really is a drop in the ocean compared to the roughly £20bn that air pollution costs the UK economy and our NHS every year.

In fact every £1 spent on Clean Air Zones is recovered in health benefits, according to the government’s own modelling.

2. Changing taxes

Given how bad diesel is for us all we need to get rid of all diesel tax breaks that successive governments have allowed. For years diesel vehicles have been incentivised – that’s just wrong.

We’re winning the battle though. In the 2017 autumn budget the government took steps to make buying diesel less attractive. It increased Vehicle Excise Duty for diesel vehicles and ring-fenced the money for air quality initiatives – a welcome step.

But it’s not enough. The government has declined to increase fuel duty. The health and climate change impacts of petrol and diesel fuel are hugely damaging, so fuel duty must rise to deter road use.

The freeze on fuel duty has cost the government roughly £43bn in lost revenues. This is a huge amount of money that could have been funnelled into developing a better transport system.

Aaron Kiely is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth.