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What is air pollution?

Air pollution is defined as the presence of harmful contaminants in the air. These contaminants include gaseous chemicals from factories and car emissions such as oxides of nitrogen, ammonia and sulphur dioxide, as well as suspended particulate matter such as dust, mold spores and pollen.

Major cities and industrial centres in United Kingdom regularly record higher than the recommended level of air pollution. In fact, London is considered one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

A view of smoggy London from Hackney. Image courtesy of David Holt.

Why does air pollution matter?

Air pollution causes a variety of harmful effects to the human body and the environment. Some of the more common effects to human health include:

• Irritation of the lungs, and heightened symptoms of lung diseases (typically ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide)

• Deep inflammation of the lungs and heart, leading to heightening of existing medical conditions (chiefly caused by particulate matter)

• Reduction or disruption of oxygen supply to the heart, leading to cardiac complications (carbon monoxide is the primary culprit here)

Air pollution that affect human principally come in two mediums, namely:

Smog: Also known as ground level ozone, smog occurs when industrial and mechanical fossil fuel emissions react with sunlight

Soot: This is a low-elevation pollution consisting of tiny solid particulate matters from chemicals, smoke, dust, spores, etc. Exposure to soot is particularly dangerous as they are able to penetrate the bloodstream and lung walls, which could cause manageable health conditions to quickly spiral into critical level.

Social and economic cost of air pollution

Studies have shown that air pollution reduce the life expectancy of Britons by an average of six months. Considering that a stick of cigarette cuts of 11 minutes from a smoker’s life, the effect of a lifetime of exposure to air pollution is equivalent to smoking 23,564 sticks of cigarette!

The cost of treating health complications caused by air pollution, meanwhile, is up to £17 billion annually. To put that figure into perspective, the total welfare spending for family and children in the UK only amounts to £15.8 billion in 2017. This means, the country spends more money treating people affected by air pollution than helping families living in poverty or facing critical living conditions.

Effect of air pollution to the environment

Needless to say, it is much harder to quantify, evaluate and monetise the impact of air pollution on the ecosystem. However, we do know that air pollution can cause damage to natural and mana-made plant and animal life, as well as soil and water, predominantly through nitrogen acidification. Left unchecked, air pollution will not only lead to stronger and more frequent ‘acid rain’, but it will also lead to loss of flora and fauna biodiversity, reduction in soil quality, and contaminated water supply.

What are the major causes of air pollution?

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the country generated almost 468 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), the most dominant greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere in 2016. Road transport, energy generation (power plants) and manufacturing (factories) are the three major sources of the emissions.

  1. Transport: 26%

  2. Energy supply: 25%

  3. Business/Manufacturing: 17%

  4. Residences: 14%

  5. Agriculture: 10%

  6. Waste management: 4%

  7. Other: 4%

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how energy generation, the perennial king, relinquished its top spot in the ranking as more and more energy plants start to move away from coal as fuel.

Several other sectors are also notable contributors to air pollution owing to the specific type of emission they produced. For instance, shipping is a major source of NOx (nitrogen oxides), while seemingly eco-friendly biomass burning is responsible for a large chunk of methane and N2O emission, and microscopic particulate matter.

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An aerial view of the emission from the coal-powered Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in East Midlands

Strategies to Combat Air Pollution in UK

Over the past few decades, the government has tried to address the issue of air pollution through a combination of legislation and adoption of more efficient technology. In recent years, however, the government has shown growing focus on low emission vehicles considering the impact that road vehicles currently have on air pollution.

It has even established the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) as it recognises that low emission vehicles will play a crucial role in achieving future air quality and climate change targets. An evaluation has shown that an annual investment cost of £61 million will yield benefits of up to £163 million over the same period (healthcare, energy efficiency, etc.). The tangible benefits will become even higher in the future in direct proportion to technological innovations of hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

Other strategies currently being pursued by the government include:

• Energy conservation (more efficient use of fuel and reducing resource consumption)

• Fuel switching (substitution to lower emission fuel)

• Technology adoption (encouraging manufacturers to adopt more efficient technology)

• Demand management (maximising the production of new products and technology)

• Behavioural change by society (e.g., use of public transport)

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