Advertisement
Environment

Why is the UK’s air so polluted – and how can we fix the problem?

Air pollution regularly exceeds WHO limits in the UK – but how did things get so bad, what are the risks – and what is the government doing to fix it?

Londoners were warned to limit their physical activity this week as air pollution levels spiked in the city, putting the issue of dirty air in the headlines once again.

Air pollution has long been a health risk across the UK, but London suffers particularly badly due to its large population and years of urbanisation. 

In 2020, nine-year-old girl Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a contributing factor to her death by an inquest.

Kissi-Debrah’s case and recent headlines have once again sparked calls to clean up dirty air in London and beyond. But why is air pollution so bad, what are its impacts – and what are authorities doing to tackle it.

Why is air pollution so bad in the UK?

Though London is particularly affected by air pollution, most places in the UK – especially cities – have high levels of dirty air. 

Even at times of lower pollution levels, many parts of the UK regularly breach World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for what’s considered a “safe” level of pollution. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

Air pollution has grown worse over the past few decades largely because of a growing number of cars on the road. 

In towns and cities, road transport is the main form of air pollution, generating nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.

Farming, industry and emissions from power generation can also contribute to the problem, while many households pollute indoor air through things like open fires and heaters.

Natural events – such as volcanoes and dust storms coming over from abroad – can also temporarily cause spikes in air pollution.

Why has air pollution spiked in London? 

London’s air pollution warning has been sparked by a period of intense high pressure covering western Europe.

This high pressure means that air is less mobile, making it harder for the emissions produced by cars and other sources to blow away. 

The government’s forecast predicts pollution levels will hit band 10, which is the highest level on the scale. 

Pollution levels in the city haven’t hit this mark since March 2018.

The Big Issue Shop

Eco-friendly gift hampers that make a positive impact

The Big Issue has collaborated with Social Stories Club to create limited edition gift hampers. Packed full of treats made by social ventures, this hamper would make the perfect gift for the festive season.

What are the health impacts of air pollution?

According to the European Environment Agency, both long- and short-term exposure to air pollution can lead to a range of diseases and complications.

This includes strokes, lunch cancers, and respiratory infections. 

WHO has also demonstrated evidence of links between exposure to air pollution and type 2 diabetes, obesity and dementia.

It’s estimated that around seven million people globally are killed by air pollution every year, with almost all of the global population (99 per cent) breathing air that exceeds WHO guideline limits.

Article continues below

How can I check if my area is polluted?

Created by campaign group the Central Office of Public Interest, this interactive tool allows you to check air pollution figures at every address in the UK.

The most polluted address on the map is London’s Harley Street, between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park, where all homes are given a ‘very high’ rating. 

Homes in the HU7 4 postcode, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, is ranked bottom of the pollution scale.

What is the UK doing about air pollution?

Boris Johnson has promised a “green industrial revolution” to tackle the climate crisis and improve air quality, which includes banning wholly petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2030. 

But the government has been urged to be bolder in its approach, with campaigners seeking specific and legally-binding targets on improving air quality in its new Environmental Bill.

Various cities, including London, have proposed clean air zones to encourage less car use – but many of these plans have been met with controversy by those who say it disadvantages those who can’t afford to switch to less polluting vehicles. 

A government spokesperson said: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. But we know there is more to do, which is why we are taking urgent action to curb the impact air pollution has on communities across England through the delivery of our £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution. 

“Through our landmark Environment Bill, we have committed to set an ambitious target on PM2.5 alongside a long-term target on air quality. The Prime Minister’s ambitious 10 Point Plan for the environment will see investment in zero-emission public transport, a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030, and the transformation of our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.”

Advertisement

Support The Big Issue Winter Appeal

Big Issue vendors can’t work from home and with severe weather warnings on the cards, they face a very tough and uncertain Winter period ahead.

Recommended for you

Read All
Poorest will be hit hardest by plans to scrap insulation scheme, warn experts
Energy crisis

Poorest will be hit hardest by plans to scrap insulation scheme, warn experts

Government rejects calls to improve climate change education in schools
Climate change

Government rejects calls to improve climate change education in schools

Why cargo bikes could be the future of green home delivery
Green transport

Why cargo bikes could be the future of green home delivery

Climate change is increasing hospital admissions in England
Climate crisis

Climate change is increasing hospital admissions in England

Most Popular

Read All
Government branded 'disgrace' after bid to strengthen Sarah Everard inquiry voted down at 12.30am
1.

Government branded 'disgrace' after bid to strengthen Sarah Everard inquiry voted down at 12.30am

What are the Kill the Bill protests?
2.

What are the Kill the Bill protests?

Rose Ayling-Ellis: 'Suddenly it became quite cool to be deaf'
3.

Rose Ayling-Ellis: 'Suddenly it became quite cool to be deaf'

The Met Police is being sued for not investigating a Downing Street Christmas party
4.

The Met Police is being sued for not investigating a Downing Street Christmas party