Air pollution levels in Oxford are increasing again, after a significant drop in 2020 due to the pandemic, latest figures show.
The rise, while still lower than pre-pandemic levels, highlights the need to take urgent action to prevent a return to previous levels.
This Clean Air Day, Oxford City Council has published its latest Air Quality Annual Status Report for the year 2021.
The new data examines the average air pollution levels across 88 air pollution monitoring locations in the city during 2021. The data shows a 14% increase in air pollution levels on 2020 levels, largely due to the easing of coronavirus lockdown measures and increasing traffic across the city. However, pollution levels are still 17% below 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
Before the pandemic, air pollution levels in the city were plateauing after a significant drop due to the introduction of the Low Emission Zone for buses in 2013. In order to see another major reduction more action is needed to reduce the number of cars on the road and promote electric vehicle use. Oxford’s proposed Core Transport Schemes are aimed at helping create this shift.
Some of the highlights of the latest Air Quality Annual Status Report are:
- Air quality was monitored at 88 sites across the city in 2021, with 20 new locations where air quality was monitored for the first time ever
- NO2 levels in Oxford increased by 14% (on average), when compared with 2020 levels, this is in line with national trends. However, despite this increase, NO2 levels on average remain 17% below pre-pandemic (2019) levels.
- For a second year, all monitoring stations across the city were fully compliant within the national legal limit for NO2 of 40 µg/m3
- 10 locations were above the City Council’s own local annual mean target of 30 µg/m3: Cutteslowe Roundabout; St Aldates; High Street (East), High Street (West); Long Wall Street; St Clements Street; Speedwell Street; Hollow Way Road; Wolvercote Roundabout; and Garsington Road.
- St. Clements Street/The Plain - traditionally Oxford’s most air polluted road -continued to have the highest air pollution levels – with an annual NO2 mean of 39 µg/m3 - only 1 µg/m3 below the UK’s annual mean limit.
- According to data from Oxfordshire County Council, in 2021 traffic levels increased by 14% on the main arterial routes in and out of Oxford
- Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5) saw no significant rise or fall compared to 2020 levels. Annual PM2.5 levels measured 7 µg/m3, this is in compliance with the UK’s annual mean target, and only slightly above the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines. Annual PM10 levels remained at 11 µg/m3 at AURN St Ebbes, and saw a minor reduction of 2 µg/m3 at Oxford High Street - both values are within compliance with the UK’s annual mean limit value and WHO guidelines.
In 2021, 20 new monitoring locations were added to help the Council improve its knowledge of the impacts of transport schemes, including the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, and the proposed ‘Core Schemes’. This data will be used as a benchmark for future years to capture the impact of these schemes on air quality levels.
Monitoring air quality data
Each year the City Council monitors and publishes an annual air quality report on air pollution levels in the city for the previous monitoring year. The Council’s reports provide an overall summary of air quality levels across the city, which are based on the calculation of an overall annual mean value for each monitoring station.
Air Quality calculations are based on annual mean values in order to take into account monthly fluctuations due to seasons, weather changes and other outside influences, which can impact pollution levels. The Council’s reports are then submitted to the Government to be ratified and approved.
Health impacts of air pollution
Air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease, and is considered the single largest environmental health risk in Europe.
A January 2020 study from Centre for Cities found out that at least one in 17 deaths in Oxford is related to air pollution.
Air pollution has been found to particularly impact the most vulnerable members of our community, such as those from minority backgrounds, the young, old and those experiencing health issues. A 2016 report found that air pollution contributes to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published stricter guidelines recommending that the recommended limit for NO2 per year is reduced from 40 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ - citing that there is no safe level of air pollution.
Tackling air pollution
Last year, the Council approved a new Air Quality Action Plan for the city which sets its own voluntary target for 30 µg/m3 of NO2 to be achieved, by 2025 at the latest—going far beyond the current national legal target set out by the UK Government of 40 μgm-3.
The target is both stretching and realistically achievable by 2025 – however, without the introduction of key schemes such as the Oxford Zero Emission Zone and the Core Transport Schemes, it is unlikely that Oxford will meet this local target.
One of the aims of the proposed Core Transport Schemes is to reduce traffic levels in the city, and the proposed Zero Emission Zone aims to minimise emissions. In 2020, air pollution levels in Oxford dropped by 29% - achieving the lowest levels of air pollution since this data was first monitored in 1996 – largely due to a reduction in road traffic during lockdowns. In order to achieve a Zero Carbon Oxford by 2040, a 30% reduction in car traffic is needed, with users instead travelling by public transport, cycling, walking, or car sharing wherever possible.
“Air pollution impacts everyone in society, but it can be especially harmful to the most vulnerable members of our community, including people from minority backgrounds, children, the elderly, and those already experiencing health issues.
“Last year the Council approved a new Air Quality Action Plan for Oxford and set out our own voluntary target for 30 µg/m3 of NO2 to be achieved, by 2025 at the latest, but there is no safe level of air pollution. We need to continue to take action to reduce air pollution in our city and clean up our air so nobody is breathing polluted air.”
Councillor Imogen Thomas, Cabinet Member for Zero Carbon Oxford and Climate Justice, Oxford City Council
“Transport emissions accounts for 68% of NOx emissions in the Oxford, and in 2021 we saw a 14% increase in air pollution levels compared with 2020 levels due to the easing of coronavirus measures and a rise in traffic across the city. While this is lower than pre-pandemic levels, we still need to take urgent action to ensure it does not return to previous levels which were damaging to everyone’s health. In order to do this we need to reduce the number of cars on our road and encourage the switch to electric vehicles, travelling by public transport, or walking and cycling wherever possible.”
Councillor Louise Upton, Cabinet Member for Health and Transport, Oxford City Council