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Call for more Clean Air Zones as air pollution rebounds to pre-Covid levels

Air pollution has rebounded since the spring lockdown and is now meeting or exceeding pre-pandemic levels in 80% of places – putting added pressure on councils to introduce Clean Air Zones.

The government consultation looked at sources of emissions other than exhausts

It’s estimated that more than half of people in London worked from home at the peak of the pandemic, yet NO2 levels in the capital have returned to near pre-March levels

The new research from the Centre for Cities think tank shows that while NO2 levels by 38% on average across 49 cities and large towns due to the spring lockdown, they rose again in the second half of the year as activity increased.

As a result, NO2 levels have now hit or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in around 80% of places studied during the second half of 2020. This is despite 98% of the country remaining under significant lockdown restrictions – raising concerns that air quality will significantly worsen once life returns to normal next year.

In some cities such as Barnsley, Bournemouth and Portsmouth, NO2 levels in September were already even higher than they were before the spring lockdown.

The think tank has urged councils not to delay measures to prevent air quality significantly worsening next year – including Clean Air Zones.

Since March many councils – including Bristol and Sheffield – have postponed their pollution reduction plans, while Leeds has said a Clean Air Zone is no longer needed.

But Centre for Cities says this new data impels councils to look again at implementing air pollution reduction measures.

It also warns that increased post-pandemic home working will not keep air pollution down. It is estimated that more than half of people in London worked from home at the peak of the pandemic, yet NO2 levels in the capital have returned to near pre-March levels.

The think tank outlines that this is because commuting is not the biggest cause of pollution, instead private vehicle usage: pollution has increased since May in line with the return of private cars to the road. Meanwhile, public transport usage has remained low.

Centre for Cities has called for mayors and council leaders to press ahead with three changes:

  • Discourage car usage by introducing Clean Air Zones that charge drivers
  • Encourage more public transport usage through improvements to bus, rail and tram systems
  • Improve cycling and walking infrastructure to encourage more active forms of travel

Chief Executive Andrew Carter said: “Toxic air has contributed to the deaths of thousands of Covid-19 victims this year and, even after the pandemic ends, will remain a big threat to health – particularly for those living in urban areas.

“City leaders can reduce threat of air pollution, but it will take political will. Discouraging car usage will be unpopular in the short-term but, if coupled with the necessary improvements to public transport, the long-term benefits to public health and the economy will be huge and our cities will become better places to live. Now is not the time for politicians to delay on this.”

Geotab’s UK & Ireland MD David Savage said the findings were worrying and do show the case for electric vehicles: “As public transport has remained low and more people are using private vehicles for their daily travel, it’s essential that the Government double down on making the switch to electric vehicles viable for commercial fleets, with a particular focus on HGVs and vans that contribute to air pollution. Yes, its recent incentives for driving EV adoption will help with this – a focus on charging infrastructure and consumer tax reductions will certainly make it easier for the public, but we must double down on businesses.

“The pandemic has previously helped UK energy demand go green, and we want to see this continue post-Covid. Over the coming months and years, Geotab would like to see the Government focus on business fleet transitions to EV to help the UK hit its climate objectives. Converting a large portion of typically diesel engine HGVs and vans will help greatly with this, and there are free tools to help inform that decision-making process – such as our own Electric Vehicles Suitability Assessment (EVSA). We appreciate that transitions require a sizeable investment and decisions can’t be made lightly. Larger scale production of EVs will aid, but the business incentives and subsidies must be on a par. We need to see both businesses and individuals working together to a common goal for the UK’s green transport transformation be truly realised.”

Places where NO2 emissions rebounded the most by September following spring lockdown (Source: Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air’s 2020):

  1. Bristol
  2. Portsmouth
  3. Plymouth
  4. Bradford
  5. Swansea
  6. Swindon
  7. Nottingham
  8. Southend
  9. Exeter
  10. Barnsley
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Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for nearly 20 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day.