An empty motorway during lockdown

‘Tackle climate change and air pollution together,’ says expert

The way UK emerges out of lockdown is crucial to environment and air quality.
21 May 2020 , Katie Coyne

Seize this moment to improve air quality and ensure new measures tackle both climate change and air pollution, an air pollution expert has urged.

Two weeks after UK lockdown air quality monitoring stations found levels of nitrogen dioxide were down by as much as 60% in some cities compared to last year.

A report in Nature Climate Change journal has just found that globally, at peak, carbon emissions in individual countries was reduced by an average of 26%.

While some plans to tackle air pollution, particularly traffic related, were put on hold at the start of the lockdown many are being re-started, and new initiatives encouraging walking and cycling introduced.

Gary Fuller, senior lecturer in air pollution measurement at King’s College London, argued that we ought to seize the opportunity. He said: “It's good news about what's been achieved in lockdown, and we have opportunity to ensure that the way in which we come out of lockdown minimises the air pollution harm that's going to be done to people.

“So I map it as good news and an opportunity going forward if we get it right and act quickly, because in a couple of weeks’ time people might be back to their ingrained habits.”

He added that EH officers could play a “huge role” in assisting councils looking to follow Department for Transport advice – setting up pop-up cycle lanes and school streets – encouraging people to walk and cycle while minimising their exposure to air pollution.

However, Fuller warned that the air pollution was not just caused by transport. He said: “There are two stories here. The fact that our pollution didn't go away tells us that the problem is much bigger than transport.

“Not all pollutants have improved. So, for instance, since the lockdown we've had the greatest levels of particle pollution (so PM2.5) that we've measured so far this year.

“This illustrates that air pollution comes from many other sources. And in this case, most relevant to the particle pollution, we have things like air pollution from agriculture.”

Spreading fertiliser on the fields and slurry that has been stored all winter, and letting animals out into the fields all contributes to a massive burst of ammonia that reacts with the pollution from industry and transport.

Bonfires, of which EHPs have noted an increase since the lockdown, also reduce air quality. Fuller praised CIEH’s intervention in raising awareness around this.

Issues around air pollution and climate change are complex and require decisive action but also a level of interconnectedness. In the past, air pollution and climate change have been seen as distinct problems rather than as a whole. This must be avoided in the future.

He said: “Most of the sources of emissions that harm our climate are also sources of air pollution. But going forward, the important point is to ensure that we pursue the policies that are win wins for both agenda.

“So, for instance, the dieselisation of Europe's vehicle fleet was justified in terms of being good for climate, in actual fact it wasn't, but it was justified in that regard though it was very bad for air pollution. Similarly, wood burning for home heating. It's justified in terms of being good for climate and it's very bad for air pollution.

“So we need to make sure that the solutions we put in place work for both agenda. So, for instance, active travel coming back to the theme of walking and cycling is really good for both agenda - both climate change and air pollution. Insulating our homes, and improving energy efficiency are brilliant for both agenda.”

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