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Blog Post 17 June 2021 Updated 26 September 2023

Clean Air Day: how to reduce air pollution and help reach net zero

by Ceit Skinner

In 2021, 17 June marks the fifth anniversary of Clean Air Day in the UK – a campaign that aims to raise awareness of the country’s air pollution situation and drive change.

Air pollution is the presence of gases and small particles in the air that cause poor air quality and can damage our health when inhaled. Harmful air pollution is often produced when industry and transport use fuel, for example from a diesel or petrol car exhaust.

Both the World Health Organization and the UK Government now recognise that poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health, causing 36,000 deaths per year in the UK alone. Action must be taken to curb this.

Protecting future generations

This year, Clean Air Day focuses on the impact air pollution has on children’s health. Children are at the greatest risk of developing heart and lung diseases, in addition to stunted lung development and low birth weight being a real danger.

Poor air quality can also impact a child’s ability to learn. A study by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that 27% of UK schools are situated in areas exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution. PM2.5 is made up of solid and liquid particles that can easily be inhaled and is considered the most harmful category of air pollution to human health.

While some local authorities are supporting schools by limiting the use of surrounding roads during school drop off and pick up times, for example through the School Streets initiative, more can be done to protect the nation’s children.

Another key consideration during Clean Air Day is Covid-19 recovery. Like air pollution, Covid-19 can affect the lung health of those with the virus, risking possible long-term damage. Exposure to air pollution can also contribute to underlying health conditions and increase the risk of severe symptoms and complications from Covid-19.

Change is needed to lessen the current threat to public health from both air pollution and Covid-19, to improve lung health, reduce occurrences of lung conditions and the severity of Covid-19 if contracted.

How can we tackle air pollution?

Transport is one of the major sources of air pollution in the UK, with 80% of nitrogen dioxide recorded at roadside and 30% of fine particulate matter being traced to vehicle tailpipes. Petrol and diesel cars contribute to air pollution, but by reducing your reliance on cars, you can help to improve air quality in your area.

Moving to active travel modes such as walking, cycling, or wheeling instead of driving not only reduces your air pollution contribution, but can improve your physical and mental health and help you concentrate at school or work.

If you are concerned about your cycling skills, there are plenty of resources and groups available to help you build your confidence on the road, including our top tips.

For longer journeys, consider shared transport options such as electric club cars or public transport. Shared transport methods like buses are able to help more people get to their destination, which reduces the number of polluting vehicles on the road. Did you know that there are already many low emission buses in operation around the UK?

You can also combine public transport with active travel, such as walking to and from the bus stop and your destination, which can have physical and mental health benefits. Many towns and cities have introduced bike share schemes, so why not see if these can meet your travel needs?

A boost for active travel

To help drive change across the country, the UK Government, devolved governments and many local authorities are launching schemes to limit the use of highly polluting vehicles and make moving to active travel easier.

These dedicated lower emission zones around the UK include the expansion of  London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, the introduction of clean air zones in Bath and Birmingham, and Scotland’s four low emission zones, with more to come over the next few years.

Local governments have also committed to investing in the development of active travel infrastructure to encourage change:

  • The Department for Transport has allocated £175 million to active travel initiatives in England.
  • The Welsh Government has increased its budget from £30 million to £50 million to be shared with local authorities to help them boost active travel options.
  • Transport Scotland has committed £500 million towards active travel projects over five years.

Transport and net zero

The UK Government is determined to meet its 2050 net zero target. This means that the country will have to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 100%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2050.

To reduce emissions from the transport sector, the government has brought forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles to 2035, from the originally planned date of 2040.

It is also investing in cleaner bus and rail travel, with plans including the removal of all diesel trains from use by 2040.

Now is your time to consider your current travel needs and prepare for the future by improving air quality in your local area.

Last updated: 26 September 2023