Inhale the Future, Exhale the Past: The Evolution of UK Air Pollution

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Written by Linda Pengelly (MSc Student for Environmental Management)

In the early to mid-1900s, the hangover from Britain’s Industrial Revolution of the previous two centuries (when emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) were at their peak) was still raging (Ritchie, 2017a). Between 1900-1920, Bronchitis attributed to atmospheric coal smoke was the second-leading cause of death in England and Wales (Widdicombe, 2020). Cold winters and gung-ho coal combustion combined to form the deadly spectre that is ‘Smog’ (a portmanteau of smoke and fog) and earned London the dubious nickname of the ‘Big Smoke’, even inspiring Monet to paint the city between 1899-1903 (Fuller, 2019).
With everything happening in the world right now (the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the looming threat of war…) it’s easy to overlook the (invisible) elephant in the room: air pollution. No-one wants to think about the ultrafine particles (PM2.5 to use the technical term) having a party in their lungs when they’re walking down the street or curling up in front of the fire. But should we be concerned? Well, yes, actually. The biggest contributors to air pollution may have changed over the years, but the bottom line is this: respiratory diseases have consistently remained one of the top 5 causes of death in the UK in our lifetime (ONS, 2017; Ritchie and Roser, 2019).

The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog) by C Monet (Monet, 1903-4)

A series of London Smog incidents followed, most notably the ‘Great Smog’ between 5-9th December 1952, which Bell and Davis (2001) estimate led to the deaths of 12,000 people. The younger generations of the Great British public were given a lesson in history when Queen Elizabeth II was portrayed stubbornly navigating the Great Smog on foot to visit her grandmother in an episode of The Crown (2016), but it begs the question: are we destined to repeat it?

Not necessarily. Granted, today’s developing cities appear to be following in the UK’s footsteps by way of initial ‘dirty’ industrialisation, as shown in Delhi:

Source: Ritchie (2017b)

There is hope, however. To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, Ritchie (2017a) maintains that as India and other developing countries increase their GDP per capita, they must aim to keep air pollution below London’s 19th century levels by developing in a ‘cleaner way’ than we did; i.e., by adopting renewable energy early. The Clean Air Act of 1956 partly tackled the issue of air pollution in the UK through the introduction of smoke control areas, but as Fuller (2019) argues, the most effective change came from the adoption of alternative fuels and heating systems.

An ‘An awareness that the burden from energy consumption on the wider society has been very high in the past and can get much worse may help concentrate minds a little more towards finding solutions, and not simply accepting that climate change is the price to pay for economic growth and development’

(Fouquet, 2011)

The 1950s-1970s saw high growth in car ownership, accompanied by an increase in emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and PM2.5 (Newman and Kenworthy, 2011). Although car ownership has continued to rise, NOx and PM2.5 levels have decreased since the 1970s due to a combination of technological advances and further political progress.

Dieselgate protest in Berlin (BUND Bundesverband, 2017)

There have been a few bumps in the road, however. In 2015, the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal broke, in which Volkswagen and other car manufacturers were revealed to have programmed on-board computers to cheat emissions tests (Fuller, 2019). Following this, sales of diesel cars in the UK nosedived, yet, frustratingly, sales of new electric/hybrid cars remain low (Ritchie and Roser, 2021), mainly due to their high initial costs and lack of charging infrastructure (ONS, 2021):

Source: Ritchie and Roser (2021)

Looking at the overall picture of air quality in the UK, data shows that there has been a steady decline in emissions of most air pollutants since the 1970s, but ammonia (NH3) levels persist (Ritchie and Roser, 2022):

Source: Ritchie and Roser (2022)

The culprit? Agriculture. According to Defra (2020; 2018), approximately 88% of ammonia emissions in the UK can be attributed to agriculture, and with 71% of UK land classed as agricultural, the scale of the issue is clear. Defra’s 2018 Code of Good Agricultural Practice (COGAP) for reducing ammonia emissions attempted to address this but given that observance of the Code is voluntary rather than mandated, its potential effectiveness is questionable.

But what about closer to home? According to Carrington (2021), the oh-so-hygge solid fuel burners in 8% of UK lounges account for, shockingly, 38% of PM2.5 emissions (26% more than road traffic, to put it into perspective). Although there are already smoke control areas in the UK, and the implementation of the 2019 Clean Air Strategy will ‘outlaw the sale of the most polluting fuels’ and ‘ensure that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022’ (Defra, 2019, p.59-60), the post-pandemic surge in energy prices and overall cost of living will likely mean that many homes continue to light up.
Compounding this problem is the long lifespan of solid fuel burners, meaning few people will ever buy a new, ‘cleaner’ one (Fuller 2019).

Source: Phelps (2019)

The top sources of air pollution may have changed over time, but the common denominator is human activity. Will we look back on the past with fog-tinted glasses, and allow history to repeat itself, or will we learn from our mistakes? It is down to every one of us to play a role in fighting the threat of air pollution, but crucially, the UK government must empower us to do so. We may hold the matches, but technological innovation and strong policies are the (seasoned) kindling we need to light the fire in our bellies.

(Adapted from Love Clean Air, 2014)


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