Air pollution levels are plateauing above legal limits in Oxford – new data

Published: Friday, 23rd June 2017

Although air quality is continuing to improve in Oxford, new data has found that air pollution appears to have plateaued above legal limits in some areas of the city.

In the last decade, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at the roadside across Oxford have dropped by an average of 36.9 per cent.

But latest data, from Oxford City Council’s Air Quality Annual Status Report 2017, has found that air quality improvements are slowing.

Between 2011 and 2013, average NO2 levels across the city centre fell by 18.9 per cent. But between 2014 and 2016, average NO2 levels fell by just 3.9 per cent.

The step change between 2011 and 2013 can be attributed to the Low Emission Zone, which banned high-emission buses from the city centre. Bus companies began converting their vehicles in the run up to the zone’s introduction in 2014.

Last week the City Council wrote to the Government to criticise its Draft Air Quality Action Plan, which aims to cut NO2 in towns and cities across the UK to meet the European Union target of 40µg/m3.

The report, which does not use the City Council’s monitoring data in its modelling, states that – without any further action – Oxford would meet European Union air quality targets by 2020.                      

The City Council disagrees with this assessment and asked the Government for more funding and powers to bring about another step change in tackling Oxford’s air pollution.

The European Union requires national governments to keep annual average NO2 levels across their countries to below 40µg/m3.

A 2016 study by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that outdoor air pollution causes about 40,000 deaths every year.

About 75 per cent of air pollution comes from traffic, and air quality is affected by congestion and slow-moving traffic caused by road works and road closures.                                                                                                   

Oxford City Council is not the transport authority for Oxford, but does have a legal duty to monitor and report on air quality in the city.

Monitoring is done at 71 sites across Oxford. Three sites use continuous monitoring stations, which produce live data, and the others use diffusion tubes, which produce annual averages.

The Air Quality Annual Status Report 2017 found:

  • The 40µg/m3 target was exceeded at 17 of the 70 diffusion tube locations – a reduction from 21 locations in 2015
  • There are no new locations reporting exceedances
  • NO2 levels have dramatically fallen around Frideswide Square, including in New Road from 44µg/m3 in 2015 to 35µg/m3 in 2016
  • St Clement’s Street remains the highest exceedance in Oxford, at 61µg/m3 – but this is down from 67µg/m3 in 2015 and 85µg/m3 in 2012
  • Levels of NO2 rose slightly around the Westgate Shopping Centre redevelopment, likely due to road closures. The highest measurement in the area was 35µg/m3 in Norfolk Street – below the 40µg/m3 target

Despite not being the transport authority, Oxford City Council has led on a series of projects to reduce air pollution in Oxford, including:

  • Launching, with Oxfordshire County Council, the Low Emission Zone. The zone was the first of its kind outside London and won the Local Authority Air Quality Initiative of the Year at the National Air Quality Awards 2015
  • Launching Oxford Park and Pedal, which has seen more than 100 cycle parking spaces introduced at two City Council park and ride sites
  • Investing £340,000 to improve Oxford’s cycling network between 2012 and 2016 as part of the Oxford Cycle City initiative
  • Launching the Schools Tackling Oxford’s Air Pollution (STOP) project, which will see the City Council working with six Oxford schools to install real-time air quality monitoring equipment and provide educational material about air quality
  • Using £800,000 of grants won from the Government to install about 100 electric vehicle charging stations in residential streets
  • Launching a study into the feasibility of a Zero Emission Zone in Oxford city centre, which would include banning or charging pollution-emitting vehicle          

Councillor John Tanner, Executive Board Member for a Clean and Green Oxford, said: “We have seen air pollution levels drop by 36.9 per cent in the last decade. This significant reduction has been due to a wide range of work carried out by the city and county councils, particularly the Low Emission Zone.

“But now we are beginning to see air pollution levels fall much more slowly in Oxford. Another step change in tacking pollution is urgently needed. Oxford City is supporting the idea of a Zero Emission Zone in the city centre to clean up Oxford’s air. Last week we wrote to the Government to request more funding and powers to tackle pollution.”

Read the Air Quality Annual Status Report 2017.