Improving air quality should be central to post-pandemic rebuild

Image: PA/David Jones

The government has been urged to address “alarming levels” of poor air quality in England as the country recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In early February, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee published a report, presenting a “strong and established” case for tackling air pollution, citing it as the largest environmental risk to UK public health. Found to disproportionately impact those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, air pollution has been linked to 64,000 early deaths a year with the health problems it causes costing society more than £20bn a year. There is also evidence that has suggested it may have increased people’s chances of both catching Covid-19 and dying from it.

The March 2020 lockdown saw many people experience better air quality. Citing a survey from Global Action Plan, the committee outlined how 18% of people found it easier to breath in this time, increasing to 21% of residents for any urban area and 36% in London. It was also found to improve for 29% of those with asthma and 30% for those with a cardiovascular disease, before most cities and towns returned to pre-lockdown levels of air pollution as of September 2020.

Looking ahead to beyond the pandemic, the committee warned of a risk people will use public transport less. The Mayor of London stressed an increased use of private cars during and after the pandemic could undo many gains in local air quality, while Transport for Greater Manchester reported a 95% fall in passenger numbers following the March lockdown. It further drew on a November 2020 survey which found 57% of people considered having a car more important now than before the pandemic, while just 43% would consider using public transport – down 57% from the previous year.

Acknowledging the need to act, the committee made a series of recommendations for government, including calling for it to commit to making legal clean air targets more stringent. Considering the Clean Air Strategy lacks the ambition to fully address the challenges posed by poor air quality, as well as the fact targets carried over from EU law can be easily amended, it called for the Environment Bill to be revised to include a specific target to reduce levels of fine particular matter (PM2.5) in line with WHO guidelines. It also recommended long-term targets for other key pollutants, such as NO2 and ammonia.

Elsewhere, it called for a long-term funding structure that empowers local councils to deliver on their duties to improve local air quality, with joined-up cross-departmental government support, including departments beyond the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport.

It also called for cycling, walking and a return to public transport to be encouraged through a campaign; for government to lead by example by updating the Government Buying Standards (GBS) to ensure only zero tailpipe emissions vehicles are procured across the public sector by 2025; and for government to consider further public investment to ensure that momentum can be maintained.