William Eichler 27 January 2020

One in 19 deaths in cities due to air pollution, think tank reveals

A think tank has urged councils to take urgent action to improve air quality in cities after research reveals that more than one in 19 deaths in urban areas is caused by pollution.

Cities Outlook 2020: Holding our breath, a new report from Centre for Cities, estimates that just one pollutant, PM2.5, is the cause of more than one in 19 deaths in the UK’s largest cities and towns — even though the UK currently meets legal limits.

It also discovered that 95% of the monitored roads in the UK that are breaching the legal limits for NO2 are in the UK’s largest cities and towns.

According to the think tank’s research, cities in the South of England do worse than others when it comes to air quality.

In 2018, for example, there were 62 days when pollution in Bournemouth rose to levels affecting those with health conditions like asthma, whereas in Belfast there were eight.

The proportion of deaths related to the PM2.5 pollutant is highest in cities in southeastern England such as Slough, Luton and London — where an estimated one in 16 people dies from exposure.

Cities in Scotland and northern England see the smallest proportion of PM2.5-related deaths. Aberdeen is the city with the lowest proportion, at one in 33.

Transport is the main source of NO2 emissions, according to the Centre for Cities.

Road transport accounts for 34% of all NO2 emissions, and this rises to 42% in cities. It represents the biggest source of local NO2 in 54 cities.

However, when it comes to PM2.5 emissions, domestic combustion is the biggest contributor.

In cities, 50% of PM2.5 levels can be explained by domestic wood and coal burning. Transport is only responsible for about 12% of PM2.5 emissions in cities.

Cities Outlook 2020 emphasises, however, that there is variation in pollution levels within cities. Road transport causes more pollution in city centres, whereas domestic and commercial combustion has more of an impact in the suburbs.

Centre for Cities recommends that cities with poor quality air should introduce London-style Clean Air Zones, charging the most environmentally-damaging vehicles to enter their centres.

They should also expand their policy action to have a broader focus than just transport and work together to encourage the Government to grant them more powers and resources to clean up their air.

Responding to the report, Cllr David Renard, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said: ‘These disturbing findings show we face an air pollution emergency and reinforce the critical need for councils to be able to build on the key role they are playing in tackling air pollution.

‘Councils want to work with the Government to reduce the impact of harmful emissions on the health of our communities, but for air quality plans to be successful, they need to be underpinned by local flexibility and sufficient funding, while issues around resourcing and capacity also need to be addressed.

‘Local powers are also needed to further tackle air pollution, particularly with regard to moving traffic offences and robust national action to help the country transition to lower emission travel, including cycling and walking and an effective national bus strategy.’

Find out about the five issues that local authorities should not forget when preparing climate emergency strategies.

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