Air pollution is a major problem that has been recognised throughout the world for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages, the burning of coal in cities released increasing amounts of smoke and sulphur dioxide to the atmosphere. In the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the UK, led to escalation in pollutant emissions based around the use of coal by both homes and industry. Pollutant emissions continued to grow through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the dramatic smog episodes known as pea-soupers became common place in many of Britain's inner cities. In addition, sulphur and nitrogen emissions were causing "acid rain" (or acid deposition), damaging buildings, forests and freshwater environments. After the infamous London Smog of 1952, pollution from industries and homes was dramatically reduced in an attempt to protect health.
In more recent times pollution from motor vehicles has become the most recognised air quality issue. Present pollution monitoring is revealing that if we do not think and act cautiously then vehicle pollution could seriously damage the environment in which we live and render it unfit for generations to come. The number of cars on Britain's roads is constantly increasing and a speed up in technological development is required to try and combat the pollution problem. The introduction of the catalytic converter reduced pollution significantly, but much more needs to be done to preserve the environment for the future. Research into alternative fuels is constantly ongoing, but they need to be available at a price everyone can afford. People need to be encouraged to use public transport or share cars whenever possible so only the minimum amount of pollution is created. A balanced solution integrating all methods of pollution reduction could help reduce emissions to a minimum.
Air pollution and acid rain have negative effects on the environment in which we live. Air pollution from transport includes emissions of carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons. Between 1980 and 1990 vehicle ownership in the UK increased by over one quarter. To compliment this vehicle usage increased by 50% during this time. If the use of the private vehicle continues to rise at this rate then impacts on wildlife, health and the general environment are likely to increase. Furthermore, acid rain is a transboundary pollution problem as emissions produced by one country can be deposited in another.
The UK National Air Quality Strategy (March 1997 and January 2000) was published in response to the Environment Act of 1995, with commitments to achieve new air quality objectives throughout the UK by 2005. The strategy aims 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. Sustainable development is development today that does not compromise the development needs of future generations. In practical terms, this means using resources, particularly fossil-fuel-derived energy, more efficiently, re-using and recycling products where possible, and developing renewable forms of energy which are inexhaustible and do not pollute the atmosphere. Sustainability will impact upon the energy, transport and waste management sectors; the challenge facing society today and in the future is to manage the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices in these areas in a manner that does not adversely affect human welfare and standards of living.