UK air pollution back to pre-pandemic levels

People choosing cars over public transport blamed for rise in toxic emissions

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2020/11/27: Heavy traffic in dense fog in London. Freezing cold and foggy weather is forecast across many parts of the UK. (Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Toxic air pollution is back to or even exceeding pre-pandemic levels across most of the UK, a study found.

The increase, measured on data from the government’s air monitoring stations, was recorded despite England’s second lockdown in November ending just over a week ago.

The study showed that the 38 per cent drop in air pollution experienced in the first lockdown in spring – which was UK-wide – largely evaporated as the country reopened.

An increase in pollution to pre-pandemic levels was recorded in 39 of the 49 cities studied – even though none of those surveyed had returned to the same level of economic activity.

Bristol, Portsmouth and Plymouth reported the biggest increases in pollution after the spring lockdown ended, while pollution in Barnsley, Bournemouth and Portsmouth is now higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Centre for Cities, which conducted the study, attributed the rise to a surge in people driving their cars to avoid using public transport. The think tank said the study showed an increase in the number of people working from home did not have a major effect on pollution levels.

London, for example, had the highest proportion of people working remotely but the city's air pollution still soared to near pre-pandemic levels.

“This is because commuting is not the biggest cause of pollution and remote workers are more likely to use their car for leisure purposes,” the report said.

The study called on local councils to press ahead with pollution reduction plans after many cities – including Leeds, Bristol and Sheffield – shelved the policies as air quality improved during lockdown.


Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter said people should be widely encouraged to take public transport. “Toxic air has contributed to the deaths of thousands of Covid-19 victims this year and, even after the pandemic ends, will remain a big threat to health, particularly for those living in urban areas,” he said.

“Discouraging car usage will be unpopular in the short term but, if coupled with the necessary improvements to public transport, the long-term benefits to public health and the economy will be huge and our cities will become better places to live.”