Air Pollution: The UK’s Silent Killer


Air pollution is a huge problem across the UK’s major urban areas, resulting in 40,000 premature deaths each year according to a recent study. The Conservative government needs to wake up to the problem and act now to prevent more damage being done to us and our children’s health. Reducing the number of diesel cars on the roads is key to this change.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is a broad term that covers the release of many different gases as a consequence of human activity. For the sake of clarity this article does not focus on the release of carbon dioxide (CO2), as while it is a huge problem globally due to its warming effects, this does not cause respiratory problems. I am concentrating on the major failure of the UK (and other countries) to control levels of oxides in Nitrogen (NOx) and especially the levels of nitrogen dioxide.

NOx pollution results in a range of health and environmental issues. It causes inflammation of the airwaves, and long term exposure to the gas decreases lung function, and increases the risk of respiratory disease and the body’s response to allergens. NOx gases contribute to the formation of fine particles, acid rain, ground level ozone and smog. It also has negative impacts on vegetation causing leaf damage and stunted growth. Let’s be clear: NOx gases are not a primary cause of death. However, long term exposure shortens lifespans and increases the incidence and severity of respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing, colds, coughing and bronchitis. This makes it effects particularly dangerous to the very young and the elderly.

A report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, states that of the 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK related to air pollution, 23,500 of these can be attributed specifically to nitrogen dioxide. Of course, the number of people affected by general health problems linked to air pollution is much higher than these figures indicate. The report’s authors estimate that the adverse impact on public health caused by pollution costs the UK economy more than £20 billion each year, just under 16% of the current annual NHS budget.

In London, air quality is particularly low; tens of thousands of children at more than 800 schools, nurseries and colleges are being exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach EU legal limits. These legal limits are set by EU Directives based on WHO recommendations. Figures from the UK government show that only 6 zones out of 43 tested had average annual levels below EU nitrogen dioxide limits. In 2014 nitrogen dioxide levels spiked in London, and rose above the levels of Beijing for the very first time. In February, the UK (among other countries) was sent a final warning to comply with the EU limits for nitrogen dioxide or face a court case and potential fines.


The problem is most acute in the UK’s cities. Statistics are most readily available for London, however the same issues are applicable to all the UK’s major urban areas. In the City of London, by far the largest source of NOx gases are from major roads (approximately 65% according to City Hall). Therefore, if vehicle emissions of NOx gases can be brought down this will have the biggest impact. Older diesel cars are the worst culprits, as they release vastly more NOx gases than petrol cars.   

Sadly, government policy has worked against reducing the number of diesel cars on the road – because of a policy conflict. Diesel is more efficient than petrol, using less fuel to travel the same distance, consequently it releases less CO2 per mile travelled. The negative side effect is that it releases substantially more NOx gases than petrol engines. In 2001 the Labour government introduced tax breaks as an incentive for people to buy diesel cars, an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions (the main cause of global warming). The tax breaks were highly effective, and diesel has become increasingly popular ever since, with figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showing that 45.9% of new car registrations in 2015 were diesel vehicles. This has helped reduce CO2 vehicle emissions but has left NOx emissions at harmful levels.

The problem of NOx emissions originally reached the public consciousness largely due to the scandal involving Volkswagen. In September 2015 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Volkswagen had used controls on its cars during emission testing, in order to reduce the amount NOx gases released, and that this practice had taken place since 2008. In normal driving conditions the same diesel engines tested released forty times more NOx gases than when they were under the test conditions. This federal penalty eventually resulted in a settlement by Volkswagen of $15.3 billion, in June 2016. To begin to solve the problem of severe Nox pollution, the fallacy that diesel is better for the environment and human health than petrol needs to be combated, and government policy towards diesel reassessed.

To reduce NOx levels significantly in the UK, we need to reduce the number of car miles powered by diesel, plain and simple. In London, Sadiq Khan has been vocal about this problem, and has announced a £10 charge for those driving the most polluting cars in central London from 23 October 2017. The mayor has also indicated his intention to extend the ultra-low emission zone beyond central London to the North and South Circular roads from 2019. While these measures are a step in the right direction, they are unlikely to make a significant difference to nitrogen dioxide levels. It is in national policy that much more significant changes can be made, and so it is the government that most urgently needs to act.

How can the government lower air pollution?

Three of the clearest possible policy levers that the government could pull are:

  • Increasing taxes on diesel at the pump;
  • Increasing Vehicle Excise Duty (also known as car tax) on diesel cars
  • Introducing a national diesel scrappage scheme where owners of older diesel cars are offered a lump sum to ditch their current car, and move to electric or hybrid cars.

In addition, to combat any possible confusion among consumers, the government should undertake an education programme to highlight that diesel cars are not clean, as previously thought, and not beneficial to the environment and human health, and that to move to electric or hybrid cars is a vastly better choice.

The Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has so far done little to address the problem, saying that drivers should take a “long, hard think” before buying a vehicle and should make “best endeavours to buy the least polluting vehicle they can.” This warning is unlikely to have much of an impact on purchasing patterns. Consumer behaviour will not change without better education allied with policies that incentivise a move to less polluting vehicles. Calls for the government to intervene more aggressively are strengthening, and we must hope that the government will act in the March budget, rather than simply continuing to offer warm words. Thankfully, the EU court system may force the government into action, the bad news is that this check may not stay in place following Britain’s departure from the EU.

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