Traffic scene on motorway

MPs call for plans to improve post-pandemic air quality

Less cars on the road during lockdown, and the prospect of mass vaccine roll-outs have helped us all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

However, MPs in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) believe the government could do more to improve the quality of our air. While the UK may have enjoyed something of a lockdown dividend, with less cars on the roads, there are signs of the country slipping back into its old habits.

How did lockdown lead to an improvement to air quality and what do MPs believe must be done to ensure that lower emissions become the norm, not just a footnote in history?

The lockdown dividend

Lockdown was a difficult time for millions across the UK, but there was a ray of sunshine amongst the gloomy headlines last year.

A paper published in the Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health journal revealed in September 2020 that, over the first 100 days of lockdown, from 23rd March onwards, reduced road traffic helped cause substantial reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels.

COVID-19 and pollution levels are connected – the Office for National Statistics found a positive correlation between the risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 and exposure to fine particulate matter. Long-term exposure to these particles was estimated to raise infection and mortality risks from COVID-19 by seven percent.

EFRA select committee urges greater ambition

MPs from the EFRA Select Committee are mindful of this correlation, and have published a report, urging the government to adopt the World Health Organisation’s guidelines with regards to air pollution. While the report estimated that NO2 levels in urban areas fell by 30-40 per cent on a year-on-year basis in March-April 2020, MPs showed concern about emissions rising as lockdown ends.

The report suggests a multi-pronged approach to tackling the issue would be the best method, with ideas for much more ambitious clean air targets, plus a means of ensuring that councils have the funding structure to help deliver on plans to clean up the air on a local level.

Public transportation is one of the best ways to reduce car usage, but passenger volumes have understandably declined, as the government advised the general population to cut down on travelling whenever possible, to limit exposure to COVID-19.

The number of passengers catching the train or hopping on the bus may require a much-needed boost when the pandemic subsides, to take cars back off the roads and help prevent a post-COVID-19 spike in emissions. To ensure this, the report also recommends an extensive campaign should be launched to promote the use of public transport, to give the sector the help it needs.

Piece by piece, steps such as these could prove consequential in helping the UK bounce back from COVID-19 with a roadmap towards cleaner skies, less combustion vehicles on the roads and a healthier population, thanks to less particulate matter.

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