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The UK National Air Quality Strategy

Introduction

The development of air pollution control in the UK has been strongly influenced by the smogs experienced in cities during the 1950s. As a result of measures put in place in response to the smogs, the UK no longer experiences high levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide pollution. High mortality rates associated with smogs have been eliminated and healthy individuals are unlikely to experience acute effects at typical air pollution levels. However, there is evidence of associations with advanced mortality, chronic illness and discomfort for sensitive groups.

The Environment Act of 1995 included a requirement for the development of a strategy to address areas of poor and declining air quality, to reduce any significant risk to health and to achieve the wider objectives of sustainable development in relation to air quality in the UK. The National Air Quality Strategy was published in response to this Act on March 12th 1997, with commitments to achieve new air quality objectives throughout the UK by 2005. A review of the Strategy led to the publication of Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in January 2000.

The Strategy

The Air Quality Strategy intends to provide a clear framework for improving air quality through:

  • a clear and simple policy framework;
  • realistic but challenging objectives;
  • regulation and financial incentives to help achieve the objectives;
  • analysis of costs and benefits;
  • monitoring and research to increase our understanding;
  • information to raise public awareness.

The Air Quality Strategy proposals aim to protect health and the environment without imposing unacceptable economic or social costs. They form an essential part of the Government's strategy for sustainable development, which has four main aims:

  • social progress which meets the needs of everyone;
  • effective protection of the environment;
  • prudent use of natural resources; and ;
  • maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.

The fundamental aim of the Government is to render polluting emissions harmless. It is necessary, therefore, to firstly define a level of harmlessness, and then to establish a policy towards the achievement of the levels by means of objectives as costs and benefits dictate.

Air Quality Standards and Objectives

The Strategy sets out standards and objectives for the 8 main health-threatening air pollutants in the UK. The standards are based on an assessment of the effects of each pollutant on public health. They are based on recommendations by the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards, The European Union Air Quality Daughter Directive and the World Health Organisation. Local Authorities are responsible for seven of the eight air pollutants under Local Air Quality Management (LAQM). National objectives have also been set for the eighth pollutant, ozone, as well as for nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide.

Proposed Standards and Specific Objectives

POLLUTANT

STANDARD

OBJECTIVE

concentration

measured as

to be achieved by:

benzene

5ppb

running annual mean

31.12.03

1,3 butadiene

1ppb

running annual mean

31.12.03

carbon monoxide

10ppm

running 8 hour mean

31.12.03

lead

0.5µg/m3
0.25µg/m3

annual mean
annual mean

31.12.04
31.12.08

nitrogen dioxide

105ppb not to be exceeded more than 18 times per year
21ppb

1 hour mean


annual mean

31.12.05


31.12.05

particles

50µg/m3 not to be exceeded more than 35 times per year
40µg/m3

24 hour mean


annual mean

31.12.04


31.12.04

sulphur dioxide

132ppb
47ppb
100ppb

1 hour mean
24 hour mean
15 minute mean

31.12.04
31.12.04
31.12.05


National Air Quality Objectives (Not for LAQM)

POLLUTANT

STANDARD

OBJECTIVE

concentration

measured as

to be achieved by:

Ozone
For the protection of human health

50ppb
(provisional)

Daily maximum of running 8 hour mean

31.12.05

Nitrogen oxides
For the protection of vegetation/ ecosystems

16ppb

annual mean

31.12.00

Sulphur dioxide
For the protection of vegetation/ ecosystems

8ppb


8ppb

annual mean

Winter average (1 Oct-31 Mar)

31.12.00


31.12.00


Achieving the Objectives

The objectives in the 2000 Air Quality Strategy are generally more stringent than in the original 1997 Strategy. These objectives are expected to be met through involvement from key sectors.

The Government and devolved administrations are to provide a clear and simple policy framework on improving air quality, which includes the setting of objectives, monitoring air quality, conducting emission inventories and predicting pollution concentrations. A key role of the government is also to inform and promote awareness of air quality issues.

Industry is a significant emitter of air pollutants. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 some 2000 of the most polluting processes have been made subject to Integrated Pollution Control, whilst a further 13,000 processes have been made subject to Local Air Pollution Control. Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) is being phased in from October 1999 and will apply to a larger number of industrial applications than previously, which will lead to further reductions in emissions over time.

Industry is required to use best available technology (BAT) to reduce emissions in pursuit of air quality objectives.

Local authorities now have an important role in helping to reduce air pollution. In England and Wales, local authorities control emissions from certain industrial processes though PPC. In Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency carry out similar functions.

Local Air Quality Management is the main tool for local authorities to deal with problem areas of pollution, known as pollution hotspots. Road transport is often a major source of urban pollution and local authorities may choose to reduce such pollution through strategies such as traffic reduction and local air quality strategies.

Businesses and individuals can also contribute to improved air quality. Businesses can promote green commuting initiatives, running fleet cars with low emissions whilst individuals can improve energy efficiency in the home and walk, cycle or use public transport as an alternative to driving, particularly for short journeys.

Transport in urban areas is often the dominant source of air pollutants.


Percentage of Emissions from Industry and Transport in the UK

POLLUTANT

% FROM INDUSTRY

% FROM TRANSPORT

benzene

20%

67%

1,3 butadiene

13%

77%

carbon monoxide

12%

75%

lead

18%

78%

nitrogen oxides

37%*

46%

particles
 

59%
 

26% (PM10)
50% (black smoke)

sulphur dioxide

89%

2%

NMVOCs

53%*

29%

* data for ozone precursors are shown - nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds.

Nitrogen dioxide is in particular a pollutant which is mainly derived from traffic and is the pollutant for which the Air Quality Strategy objective is least likely to be met. Local authorities will be able to play a part in tackling this problem. Developments in fuel technology and new technologies such as electric vehicles, will also have an important role. Road traffic increases are somewhat offsetting the reduction in emissions per vehicle which have been brought about by the introduction of catalytic converters in the early 1990s. Rail freight transport is being encouraged by the Government as an alternative to road transport, as one means of reducing vehicle emissions.

Conclusion

The Air Quality Strategy 2000 sets out the way forward for improving air quality in the UK over the next few years and is to be regularly reviewed. The framework has been set to achieve cleaner air that will bring health and social benefits to all individuals, though the effort of everyone is required to help deliver cleaner air.

The full Air Quality Strategy for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is available on the DEFRA website:

http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/airquality/strategy/index.htm