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Analysis of Air Quality in the UK

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2788 words Published: 15th Dec 2017

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Air pollution has always been a major area of concern in the developed world, especially in major cities. Air pollution is defined as-

‘the presence in the outdoor atmosphere of one or more contaminants such as dust, fumes, gas, mist, odour, smoke, or vapour in quantities and of characteristics and duration such as to be injurious to human, plant, or animal life or to property, or to interfere unreasonably with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property'.

In the past there have been severe problems with air quality in the United Kingdom, especially in major cities such as London. In 1952 the Great London Smog, which came about due to an increase in industrialisation, caused heavy smoke to settle over the city for days and caused thousands of deaths. Fortunately, the air quality in London has substantially improved since then and visible air pollution, such as dust, smoke, and smog has mostly disappeared due to UK and European legislation and initiatives. However, there have been more recent instances of deaths caused by air pollution. In 2003, during London's summer smog episode in August there were a total of between 46 and 212 premature deaths from ozone and 85 from particulate matter. London's summer smog episode in July 2006 was likely to have resulted in a similar or greater number of deaths from ozone and a slightly lower number for particulate matter.

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Due these events and increase public awareness or the damaging effects of air pollution, the United Kingdom government has put various legislation and initiatives in place to improve air quality. Air pollutants are mainly caused by human activities that have serious health effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. As well, car and aviation pollution are major sources of many air pollutants and the number of vehicles and aircrafts are increasing. These pollutants all contribute to climate change, which could lead to flooding and extreme weather. Environmental legislation that deals with air pollution has aimed to improve air quality through a variety of measures. Furthermore, initiatives such as the National Air Quality Strategy and preventative systems like the precautionary, preventative and polluter pays principles also aim to improve air quality. Other proposals include reducing car emissions, buying locally produced goods and turning off electronic devices when not in use.

Air Pollutants

Many activities that seem harmless on the surface contribute to air pollution, from driving a car to using hairspray. The main pollutants of concern that affect air quality include, but are not limited to; particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). These pollutants can have serious health effects in both the long and short term.

Particulate matter is non-visible airborne particles and the main source is the emissions from diesel engines. When inhaled, particulate matter can reach deep in the lungs where it can produce inflammation and worsen heart and lung diseases in sufferers of these conditions.

Volatile organic compounds are mainly released in vehicle exhaust gases, usually as unburned fuels. These compounds can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to certain infections.

Chlorofluorocarbons are a product of aerosol sprays, solvents, etc that undergo a major reaction that destroys the ozone. The ozone is vital as it protects life from ultraviolet radiation. Also, CFCs can have a more visible effect as it has been known to irritate the lungs and increase the symptoms in sufferers of asthma and lung diseases. Other possible long term health effects include cancer, liver and kidney damage, and birth defects.

Sulphur dioxide is released into the air due to the burning of fossil fuels which contain sulphur, the most common source being coal fired power stations. It is an acidic gas which can combine with water vapour to produce acid rain, which has been linked to the death of wildlife in some cases, as well as to the corrosion of buildings. It can cause a decrease in lung function in persons who already suffer from respiratory problems. Thus, it is clear to see why it is important to reduce these pollutants as much as possible to ensure the safety of the population.

Car Pollution

Motor Vehicles are one of the major sources of air pollution in the United Kingdom by causing carbon dioxide emissions at a total of 22%. Other air pollutants from motor vehicles include nitrogen oxides, particles, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. This will not change in the near future as traffic levels are predicted to continue to rise. All of these pollutants have a damaging impact on human health and flora and fauna. The UK Government has introduced measures to combat this form of air pollution. The annual Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) was introduced in 2001 as a way to tax motor vehicles based on predicted carbon dioxide emissions and the type of fuel used. In addition, tax discounts are available for users who buy bio-fuel and hybrid electric vehicles. In this way, car owners are encouraged to buy vehicles which are less harmful to the environment.

Aviation Pollution

In 2006, approximately 240 million passengers passed through the main UK airports and the government predicts that by 2020 this will increase to 400 million passengers. Pollutant emissions from aircrafts are rising with the increasing amount of flights. Previously, the main pollutant that was emitted from aircrafts was nitrogen oxides (NOx). These are harmful as they contribute to the making of ozone which has a major part in global warming; however this is not a problem of recent for civil aviation with the decommissioning of the Concorde. As well, aircrafts are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions and these emissions at a higher altitude are thought to have a greater effect on climate change than emissions on the ground. In fact, it is likely that the aviation sector will become the main source of carbon dioxide in the near future.

Climate Change

Along with directly harming human health as mentioned, another effect that these pollutants cause is climate change, which implies a significant change from one climatic condition to another. This happens when the emission of greenhouse gases trap the radiation emitted by the earth's surface which raises the air temperature. There are predictions that this can cause changes such as the melting of polar ice caps which could cause flooding in low-lying areas. The ‘greenhouse effect', as this is called, continues to increase as the emissions of these gases are on the rise and the government is following the Kyoto Protocol targets in order to reduce these emissions. As well, the UK launched a climate change program in 2000 with the aim of helping the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% by 2012 and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010. The reduction of greenhouse gas emission is done through integrated pollution prevention and control permits.

The two main economic instruments used to combat climate change in the United Kingdom are the climate change levy and the national emissions trading scheme. The Climate Change Levy (CCL), which was introduced in the Finance Act 2000, is an energy usage tax that is levied on users in the industrial and public sector. There are also discount schemes in place, as well as an incentive to companies as they can reclaim 100% of capital allowance for energy efficient products within the first year of expenditure.

The national emissions trading scheme is a voluntary measure which began in 2002 and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing participants to buy and sell allowances to produce emissions. The scheme was devised by the Emissions Trading Authority. The allowances are based on specific reduction target agreed on by the participants. One of the critiques of the scheme is that any reduction in emissions is not necessarily linked to the trading scheme.

Current Legislation

Air pollution is a challenging area of environmental law to regulate. This is because emissions can diffuse quickly and it can be difficult to identity the sources of pollution. Although the UK government has been accused of being reactive rather than proactive with regards to environmental regulation, the government has passed various laws in an effort to combat air pollution.

The first of such laws was passed in response to the Great London Smog, and called the Clean Air Act 1956. The act aimed to protect the environment by controlling and reducing sources of smoke pollution including smoke, dust, and fumes from all fires and furnaces by introducing smokeless zones in the city. This act was supplemented by the Clean Air Act 1968, and both acts were consolidated in the Clean Air Act 1993.

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As well, The Environment Act 1995 contains a number of provisions which enabled the development of various policies on air pollution. It requires all local authorities in the UK to review and assess air quality in their area. If any standards are unlikely to be met by the required date, then that area will be designated an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) and the local authority must implement an action plan aimed at reducing levels of the pollutant. Furthermore, some local authorities have adopted specific bye laws to control sources of air pollution. However, these can be difficult to enforce because surveillance is complicated and it is not easy to find those responsible.

In terms of traffic control, the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 places a duty on local authorities to continually review traffic levels on roads and to produce targets for lowering traffic numbers. Local authorities have the power to do this by issuing Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) which can be used to achieve air quality objectives by restricting traffic in certain areas. Also, under the Transport Act 2000, every local transport authority must create Local Transport Plans (LTP) which give details for promoting public transport and charging levies to vehicle uses.

Finally, the Air Quality (England) Regulations 2000 sets down the targets for air quality in each area starting from the end of 2003 to 2008. These objectives are to reduce the main pollutants of concern and are set in relation to the effect on human health, as well as its effect on the environment in general.


The National Air Quality Strategy is the main policy that sets out UK air quality standards and objectives for reducing levels of health-threatening pollutants and maintaining or improving air quality levels. Its power comes from section 80 of the Environment Act 1995. The levels of reduction have been set on the basis of scientific and medical evidence on the health effects of the various pollutants, and according to how realistic the standards to be met are. Many of these standards are the product of UK incorporation of European law. The targets laid out by the strategy are usually achieved by pollution control legislation through the setting of emission limits. However, though the environment act provides a power to prescribe standards, the strategy has no statutory force.

The system of Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) is the main form of pollution regulation in the UK, and gets its power under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It aims to ensure that solutions that have a positive impact on one area of the environment, does not have a negative impact on another i.e. to have more integrated solutions. The system involves issuing a permit and conditions are based on the use of Best Available Techniques (BAT), which balances the costs of preventing environmental impacts against benefits to the environment. Where a breach of legally binding EU air quality limit values is caused by a particular industrial installation or sector, more stringent permit limits than BAT can be imposed. A number of smaller installations are covered by Local Authority Pollution Prevention and Control (LAPPC), which controls emissions to air only.

The Precautionary and Preventative Principles

These principles are methods of protecting the environment from damage. This precautionary principle states that precautions should be taken to protect human health and the environment, even in the event of a lack of evidence of harm caused. However, critics say it does not specify how much caution should be taken. As well week precaution, which is used in the UK, only requires precautionary measures to be taken when the balance of cost and benefits justifies doing so. This basically means that persons can cause environmental damage as long as it is a net gainer to do so, which does not let the public know the importance of protecting the environment. The preventative principle is more widely acceptable. It states that the damage should be prevented in advance rather than taken care of after the fact. It also requires the preventative measures to be based on scientific standards. Thus, it is more likely to be accepted by big corporations as it is a more proven measure.

The Polluter Pays Principle

The polluter pays principle is a policy developed by the EC. It means that the person or organisation that caused the pollution should pay for the cost of the pollution. This includes direct and indirect costs as well as costs incurred by avoiding pollution. However is should be noted that this principle, though followed, has no statutory force. This policy has major criticism because it is hard to determine the limits on payment for damage caused. It is also difficult to identify the polluter. In most instances, only certain polluters are targeted which brings harsh criticism and questions the validity of the policy. As well, it could give the impression that pollution is acceptable as long as you pay for it which sends the wrong message.


The only way that the above mentioned legislations and initiatives will work in today's society is if there is a greater emphasis on public awareness of the effects of air pollution on our environment. The most efficient starting point in combating air pollution is by seeking to reduce emissions in motor vehicles, as well as reducing the number of vehicles. This can be done through the promotion of public transport and carpooling. Also, there should be more encouragement of buying local goods, as the longer the distance that goods are transported, the more air pollution is generated. Thus, if more people consumed locally produced goods it would go a long way in reducing air pollution and improving air quality. Finally, if people switch off their electronic devices when they are not using them and use energy-saving light bulbs, they can save on their electricity bill as well as reduce the amount of pollutants that are emitted into the air. Therefore, if less electricity is used then less power is produced and fewer pollutants will be released into the air.


The environment is obviously very important for various reasons, and every effort must be made to protect it to the greatest extent possible. It can be seen that air pollution has a significant negative impact on human health, wildlife, architecture and the environment in general. This is mostly caused by certain human activities and by reducing them we can improve air quality. These improvements include taking non-vehicle means of transportation, buying locally produced goods, switching off electronic appliances and buying energy-saving light bulbs. However, air pollution is a difficult area of environmental law to navigate, as the range of polluters and the sources of pollutants are varied and difficult to identity.

It is important to continue improvements of air quality in the UK, especially in light of upcoming events such as the Olympics in 2012. As Philip Mulligan, Chief Executive of Environmental Protection UK, said:

"With current concerns regarding the air quality in Beijing for the Olympics this summer, it is only fitting that London takes steps to ensure that air quality standards are met in the capital, in time for the 2012 games."

It is important that the United Kingdom is seen as a leader in protecting the environment, as a lot of countries look the UK for guidance on important issues such as these.



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