UK air pollution fell to record lows in 2020 due to lockdowns

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Motorway

A deserted motorway in Surrey, UK

Chris Gorman/Getty Images

Air pollution in the UK fell to its lowest levels in decades last year due to the coronavirus pandemic’s unprecedented restrictions curbing traffic.

Past research has detected deep but brief drops in pollution during the country’s lockdowns, but today figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed the scale of the impact in 2020 for the first time.

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Average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced largely by diesel vehicles, fell to their lowest point since records started in 1997. Many UK cities have been in breach of legal limits on NO2 for more than a decade. The ONS said covid-19 restrictions were probably a “large contributing factor” to the decline.

The average roadside concentration of NO2 per cubic metre was 23 micrograms in 2020, down from 30 µg/m³ in 2019 and 60 µg/m³ in 1997. The annual legal limit is 40 µg/m³.

Other pollutants saw similar dramatic reductions as lockdowns meant people stayed at home and road traffic at times fell back to levels last seen in the 1950s.

Levels of PM2.5, a type of particulate matter that is produced by vehicles, wood-burning stoves and fossil fuel power stations, declined to their lowest point since 2009, when records began. A larger type of particulate pollution, PM10, dropped to a low unseen since records began in 1992.

However, the respite is expected to be short-lived as traffic levels return to normal in 2021. Campaigners are pressing the UK government to adopt tougher air pollution limits after a coroner recently said they are needed to avoid future deaths. Up to 36,000 people are estimated to die in the UK annually because of long-term exposure to dirty air.

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