Air Pollution: Coronavirus

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs written question – answered on 24th September 2020.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley and Eccles South

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what assessment he has made of changes in the level of air pollution during lockdown restrictions due to the covid-19 outbreak; and what steps he is taking to reduce air pollution.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government is taking a proactive approach to understand the possible links between air quality and COVID-19. That is why, with our Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG), we ran a rapid Call for Evidence to ensure we can more fully understand the impact that COVID-19 is having on air pollutant emissions, concentrations and human exposure. A report was published on 1 July (the report can be found here: https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/library/reports.php?report_id=1005) which outlines the findings from this Call for Evidence. The report provides an early snapshot of evidence (pre-April 30th 2020) and is an important component of Defra’s response to COVID-19 and strategic leadership to improving air quality in the UK. A detailed follow-up by AQEG in the form of a more traditional review of the peer reviewed evidence will follow when more is known about the impact of the pandemic on air quality.

The National Air Quality Monitoring Network continuously monitors air quality across the UK for a range of pollutants including for key pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and particulates. These networks have provided valuable insights into the impacts COVID -19 has had on air quality throughout this pandemic and continue to provide valuable information to assess air pollution trends.

Our assessment of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM2.5 concentrations during the pandemic has shown that:

  • Between 23 March and 31 May, NO2 concentrations were on average 46% lower compared to the 3-year average for the same period in 2017-2019, although there was substantial local level variability - with NO2 reductions at individual locations ranging from 5 to 68%. Concentrations of other air pollutants, such as particulate matter, have not shown similar trends.
  • Since the start of June, we have seen NO2 concentrations increase slightly as lockdown measures were lifted and traffic activity increased, although on average roadside NO2 concentrations remain lower than levels observed in the previous 3 years. From 1 June to 16 September 2020, roadside NO2 concentrations were on average 26% lower compared to the 2017-2019 average for this period, although there continues to be considerable local level variability.
  • There has been an impact on PM2.5 concentrations. Between 23 March and 16 September 2020 concentrations of PM2.5 measured by our monitoring network decreased by 15% at urban sites compared to the same period averaged over years 2017-2019. There is substantial local variability, however, with several sites reported increasing concentrations over the period.

Improving air quality remains a top priority for the Government and, especially during these unprecedented times, we will continue to take robust and comprehensive action to improve air quality in the UK and minimise public health impacts. This includes action that Government is taking to deliver our Clean Air Strategy, including through the Environment Bill. We will apply our understanding of the longer-term implications from these unprecedented changes in living and working patterns to delivering our environmental commitments.

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