1.Cleaner air and clearer skies were one of the few positives that many people experienced following the first covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. As the pandemic progressed, evidence also began to emerge that air pollution might be playing a role in people’s susceptibility to, and increased mortality from covid-19. Air pollution is classified as the largest environmental risk to UK public health; with, depending on the study, it being linked to around 40,000 or 64,000 early deaths a year.
2.Health problems caused by air pollution in the UK are estimated to cost individuals and society more than £20 billion a year. Our predecessor’s joint inquiry with the Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport Committees concluded in 2018 that the Government had failed to address the scale of the challenge, and did not show the national leadership needed to deliver the necessary “step change” in how the problem of air quality was tackled. Given the new concerns about air quality raised during the pandemic, we decided it was necessary to see if that step change had been achieved.
3.Our latest inquiry was launched in June 2020 to assess whether the Government’s latest Clean Air Strategy published in 2019 and the Environment Bill would be able to meet the air pollution challenge after the pandemic. Our call for evidence asked:
a)Did the UK Government’s 2019 Air Quality Strategy set out an effective and deliverable strategy to tackle the UK’s poor air quality and address the issues raised in our 2018 report? Has the UK Government put in place the necessary structures and resources to deliver its strategy?
b)Will the Environment Bill provide England with a robust legal framework to define and enforce air quality limits?
c)What progress had the UK Government made on reducing air pollution and enforcing legal pollution limits before the covid-19 pandemic?
d)What does the early evidence from the covid-19 pandemic say about the impact of poor air quality on health, and health inequalities for disadvantaged communities and other at-risk groups, and possible policy responses?
e)What are the current and emerging risks and opportunities for air quality posed by?
i)Short-term policy and societal changes in response to the pandemic, for example changes to transport to reduce the risk of transmission, and;
ii)Medium and long-term actions to promote economic recovery.
We received around 90 written submissions and took oral evidence from academic experts; civil society organisations; local government leaders; and ministers and officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT). We would like to thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry.
4.Our Report is intended to inform future policy and action by the UK Government and local authorities, both in response to the current pandemic and to enable the UK to achieve longer-term improvements in air quality. It is in three sections:
5.Although our inquiry particularly focused on air quality issues relating to the pandemic, and particularly the issues it raised about transport given the impact of the lockdown on travel; the evidence we received raised many other issues, including wood-burning stoves and ammonia emissions from farming. A number of these were covered in our 2018 report and may be issues that the Committee returns to in future. Air quality is a devolved competency, so this Report refers to England only unless otherwise specified.
1 The changes in measured air quality are summarised in Air Quality Expert Group, Estimation of changes in air pollution emissions, concentrations and exposure during the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. Rapid evidence review – June 2020 (June 2020). For public perceptions see, Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership () para 6.6; and Global Action Plan and Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Build Back Cleaner Air: COVID-19 & Air Pollution, survey, 2020 (July 2020)
2 Global Action Plan and Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Build Back Cleaner Air: COVID-19 & Air Pollution, survey, 2020 (July 2020) pp7–9; and Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership () para 6.3
3 Public Health England Health Matters: Air Pollution (November 2018). The 40,000 deaths figure is cited in Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Every breath we take (February 2016), p. xiii. The 64,000 estimate is taken from Jos Lelieveld, Klaus Klingmüller, Andrea Pozzer, Ulrich Pöschl, Mohammed Fnais, Andreas Daiber, Thomas Münzel, “, European Heart Journal, vol 40, Issue 20 (May 2019), pp 1590–1596.
7 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee ‘Once in a lifetime’ opportunity to reduce pollution (12 June 2020)
8 “Boris Johnson: Now is the time to plan our green recovery”, Financial Times, 17 November 2020
9 See, for example, Gary Quinn () & Adrienne Williams () on wood burners, and Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England () on farming.