Pandemic brings air pollution within legal limits

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AIR pollution levels in Scotland remained within legal limits for the first time last year as a result of the pandemic’s impact on our lives.

Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES) have revealed the government’s instructions to stay at home, the shift to remote working and the ensuing massive drop in car journeys from March 2020’s lockdown led to steep drops in pollution, particularly on commuter routes into the biggest cities.

The organisation say the findings demonstrate the clear link between car journeys and pollution levels and campaigners are now calling on ministers to work with local authorities to ensure the reductions can be sustainably maintained.

FoES also say that their air quality data and traffic figures show that the improvements in air quality due to Covid-19 restrictions were short-lived and pollution soon returned to high, pre-pandemic levels. However, the drop in the Spring was sufficient to bring the annual average down considerably on 2019 levels – the legal air quality standards came into force in 2010 and had been breached every year.

Data shows Hope Street in Glasgow remains the most polluted street for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at nearly 36 micrograms per cubic metre (MCG). The legal limit set by the European Ambient Air Quality Directive is 40 MCG. Other streets noted for high levels were Dundee’s Lochee Road, Perth’s Atholl Street, Inverness’s Academy Street, Edinburgh’s Nicolson Street and Falkirk’s West Bridge Street.

Meanwhile, Salamander Street in Edinburgh is the dirtiest street for levels of particulate matter – which is another measured pollutant – at nearly 16 MCG, which is just below the legal level of 18 MCG. Other streets noted were Main St Bainsford in Falkirk, Irvine High Street in North Ayrshire and Aberdeen’s Wellington Road.

The Scottish government’s ‘Cleaner Air for Scotland’ strategy has been criticised by campaigners for containing “very few ideas” for reducing pollution, while proposed Low Emission Zones (LEZs) for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen were delayed

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Air Pollution Campaigner Gavin Thomson said: “It’s a huge pity that it took a deadly pandemic to bring our air quality within legal limits.

“Scotland’s car-choked transport system was brought to a halt in Spring, and this is why our annual averages of pollution are much lower than previous years. Any improvements in air quality in Scotland have been short-lived with traffic quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“We need to remember that pollution damages our health through long-term exposure, such as living near a main road throughout your childhood. The reduced pollution for a couple of months during the strictest lockdown is unlikely to have many long-term health benefits.”

Mr Thomson added: “The health links between air pollution and Covid-19 should push us to redouble our efforts to clean up our air and protect public health. The Scottish Government’s recently published ‘Cleaner Air for Scotland’ strategy contains very few ideas for reducing polluting traffic and cleaning up our transport system. The Government and Councils must seize this moment to rethink how we plan our towns and cities, and how we move around.

“Temporary improvements in air quality arrived at an enormous cost to our communities and societies. There was no intention or concerted political action to reduce emissions, which is why the falls were not maintained when restrictions eased. “We need a just and green recovery, including investment in our public transport and more options for safe walking and cycling, to improve the air we breathe permanently.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Covid-19 is a health and economic crisis of unprecedented scale which has taken lives, damaged livelihoods and upended our society and economy. While a vaccination programme is well underway in Scotland, we are not through this yet and we must continue to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.

“While the pandemic and EU exit have created unprecedented pressures on government, we are committed to a green economic recovery which captures the opportunities of moving to net zero in way that is fair and leaves no one behind.

“The vision proposed through the National Transport Strategy and the new Cleaner Air for Scotland strategy for a fairer and greener transport system, remains as relevant in guiding our actions through and out of this crisis, as it does for the protection of our climate and for our future sustainable economic growth.

“The introduction of Low Emission Zones in Scotland began in Glasgow in 2018 with full enforcement in the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee on tract to commence in the early 2020’s. The LEZs will set the highest emission standard possible for diesel vehicles within our cities and will lead to a significant reduction in emissions of harmful air pollutants.

“Our recent Programme for Government committed over £500 million for large-scale active travel infrastructure projects and, as part of our Climate Change Plan update we have committed to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans and reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030.”

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