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Air quality improves in UK cities as people leave cars at home

Curbs on non-essential journeys are leading to a reduction in harmful emissions

Air quality in cities across the UK is improving due to people staying at home and avoiding non-essential journeys, resulting in a reduction in emissions.

Besides people not driving their own cars, less commercial vehicle traffic and many workplaces shutting down are among factors helping improve the atmosphere.

Similar findings have been observed in other countries throughout Europe that have implemented lockdowns to try and contain the coronavirus pandemic.

BBC News reports that data from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) shows big falls reductions in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5).

NCAS director of science, Professor Ally Lewis, said: “If you look at traffic volumes, they're still going down. And so we probably haven't reached the bottom yet.

“A few days ago, we were talking about journeys by car going down by about a third, and now it's nearly a 50-60 per cent reduction.

“So, it's possible if transport keeps declining, the signal we detect could get even larger.”

NCAS compared average air pollution levels over the past five years in 10 UK cities – Birmingham, Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and York – with those from 15 February to 24 March.

Each city experienced a fall in levels of PM2.5, while all cities saw a reduction in levels of NO2 other than Belfast and York – although Professor Lewis said that may be due to those two cities having fewer monitoring stations.

“In London, we have a lot of data we can aggregate together,” he said. “In some of the smaller cities and towns, there may be only one monitor and the data can get a little noisy.

“But when you see a consistent picture across multiple cities at multiple monitoring sites then you do know that something real is happening.”

With a huge reduction in airline flights as a result of travel restrictions also contributing to cleaner air, environmental campaigners have said that one consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting how changing the way we move around can have dramatic consequences for climate change.

Professor Lewis acknowledged that the current situation gave a glimpse of what might be possible in the future.

“What we're doing is essentially looking into the future when we don't have diesel cars because we plan to take them off the roads,” he said.

“This summer may tell us what level of PM2.5, for example, is likely to be achievable in the big cities such as central London or central Birmingham.”.

Philip Dunne, the Conservative MP for Ludlow who chairs the environmental audit select committee, said: “Coronavirus is not only having an unprecedented impact on how we live our lives, but also how pollution levels around the world are falling as a result of the global shutdown.

“The government has committed to a low-carbon future, and the Environmental Audit Committee will look to explore how we can avoid going straight back to dangerous levels of pollution once this is all over.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Rich_cb | 4 years ago

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic but I'm hoping that the 'lockdown' will represent a tipping point in the way we live our lives.

Millions of people and businesses will now have experience of remote working and it stands to reason that the amount of remote working done will increase permanently.

Less traffic, less pollution, fewer cars.

Anecdotally the number of people riding bikes seems to have increased hugely too.

Hopefully many will persevere.

Stebbo replied to Rich_cb | 4 years ago

I hope you are right,  but my gut tells me once this is over many will go back to there old ways.

mattsccm replied to Stebbo | 4 years ago

My bet is that the minute any restrictions are lifted the great British public will be wise than before.

Philh68 replied to Stebbo | 4 years ago

Could even be worse, there is speculation that we could wind up with “revenge pollution” as governments around the world push for economic growth to speed recovery and commit to long term initiatives that aren’t environmental best practice.

crazy-legs replied to Philh68 | 4 years ago

That's what happened after the financial crash in 2008, the Government was so keen to get the economy kick-started that they dropped fuel duty, gave incentives to buy diesel cars and put in place large road-building schemes. no

BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP replied to Stebbo | 4 years ago

I'm afraid I share your view. 

Rich_cb replied to Stebbo | 4 years ago
1 like

Many undoubtedly will return to their old working patterns but once a significant minority are remote working then hopefully a snowball effect will take place.

CXR94Di2 replied to Stebbo | 4 years ago
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The environmental lobby groups will have all the data on how much the atmosphere improves in cities and towns by the time this lockdown is finished. No government will be able to fob them off with flawed data analysis. Im hoping there will be a sea change

Sriracha replied to Rich_cb | 4 years ago

The only guaranteed legacy of this emergency will be the emergency powers acquired by the state:

Rich_cb replied to Sriracha | 4 years ago

There is that concern also.

Governments do not like giving up emergency powers.

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