There’s something in the air

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Cummulus clouds

Clean air shouldn’t just be a luxury that is enjoyed by only some of us; however in today’s world, this is unfortunately the reality. With the levels of atmospheric pollution in some of our large urban centres and rural towns exceeding European standards, and significant increases in air pollution-related health conditions, we find out from SEPA’s John Lamb, Local Air Quality Management Specialist, why air pollution has become such an issue and what is being done to reduce it.

It is estimated that between 24,000 to 35,000 premature deaths occur in the UK each year as a result of poor air quality, with many more people with pre-existing health conditions, such as respiratory or cardiovascular problems, also being affected.

While much effort has been made over the past few years to reduce the levels of air pollution, concentrations of particulate matter (PM10 – material that is less than 10 micrometres in diameter) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are proving to be particularly challenging to address.

Under the Environment Act 1995 all local authorities are required to designate areas where air quality objectives are unlikely to be met as Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs). In Scotland, there are currently 31 such areas, with more expected to be designated in the future.

The UK is also currently in breach of the EU limit values for NO2 (and PM10 in England), and could face infraction proceedings and large fines. The Supreme Court also ruled recently that the UK has failed in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution.

The problem
So why is air pollution such a big problem in our towns and cities? The answer is primarily due to road traffic, which is the main source of air pollutants and it is also the second fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions from cars are a small fraction of what they used to be thanks to advances in engine technology, but the large increase in vehicle numbers have negated the expected improvement in air quality.

The number of diesel powered vehicles alone has increased from 10% in 2000 to 50% in 2012. These vehicles emit less carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) but the emissions of NO2 have increased and several local authority monitoring sites have recorded a year-on-year increase in the roadside concentrations of this pollutant.

Why so many cars?
Traffic queueAs a society, we have become more reliant upon cars to get from A to B, as driving makes journeys more convenient and flexible, compared to public transport, with commuting one of the main reasons for car use.

In 2011, 67% of people travelled to work by car (or van) , and according to Sustrans, one in five cars on the road during the morning peak are doing the school run, despite the average primary school journey being just 1.5 miles. The volume of commuter related traffic is predicted to see further increases in the future as more people choose to travel from areas outwith their work location, due to more affordable house prices.

Out-of-town retail and business parks have also encouraged car use, and dense inner city developments have increased the number of vehicles competing for space on routes that are already close to capacity.

Large urban centres are also faced with the dilemma that they need to attract people to ensure the economic viability of the retail and business sectors, but large volumes of traffic can increase congestion and pollution along the main commuter routes. Councils therefore need to consider if they should increase the availability of parking (to attract more shoppers) or do they reduce car parking and encourage a modal shift to the cleaner transport options, and risk losing the shoppers to other retail centres?

Scottish Transport Emissions Partnership
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Transport Scotland – with the support of the Scottish Government – set out to create a collaborative air quality technical group that would provide support and assistance to all organisations working to address poor air quality.

In October 2012, the Scottish Transport Emissions Partnership (STEP) was launched and aims to promCity trafficote a more co-ordinated approach to managing urban air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

STEP believes that extensive cross-professional involvement is essential if we are to improve urban air quality. The partnership therefore consists of a number of transport, planning, health and environmental professionals with the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to make STEP effective.

The core group meets quarterly to engage with a range of guest speakers and discuss the progress of projects which includes running awareness raising events. They tweet regularly using @step_scotland, and a web page is also being created which will be hosted on the Scottish Air Quality website.

STEP recently hosted a successful one day summit that considered the future of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) in Scotland. The discussions were very encouraging and STEP welcomed the announcement that the Scottish ministers have approved the creation of a national LEZ framework. A second event is being planned for November.

What progress has been made?
The steady growth in traffic has been subtle and when problems do appear, they are often difficult (and expensive) to address; we therefore need to strengthen the links between transport planning and land use planning. We also need to better align policies that are in place to tackle climate change and air quality, in an effort to address conflicts.

Technical improvements may have brought about a reduction in some emissions, but technical solutions alone will not bring about the levels of improvement that we require. There appears to be a growing interest in sustainable transport networks, resulting in a small increase in the number of hybrid and electric buses – a shift that has been encouraged by the Green Bus Fund.

A sustainable, healthier and cleaner future is possible, but it will require a lot more imaginative thinking.

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