Published: Friday, 15 May 2020

Oxford city centre has seen a historic 59% drop in air pollution as a direct result of the coronavirus lockdown, new data has revealed.

Independent experts from Ricardo Energy and Environment modelled what air quality would have been like without lockdown measures in place and compared this with the actual measurements obtained at sites across the UK.

The assessment found a 59% reduction in toxic nitrogen dioxide in Oxford as a direct result of the lockdown measures.

In Oxford, 75% of nitrogen dioxide comes from transport and, with roads clear of congestion, levels are now below the legal limit in Oxford city centre for the first time in generations.

To put the historic reduction into perspective, over the decade to 2019 air pollution levels in Oxford had decreased by 36.8%.

Oxford City Council is keen to maintain the historic reduction in air pollution after the lockdown eases, and is in discussions with Oxfordshire County Council, the transport authority, to achieve this.

Earlier this week, the City Council announced that it was exploring a range of measures – including reallocating road space for walking and cycling, and pedestrianising Broad Street – to protect public health, and provide pedestrians and cyclists with more space, as the city centre reopens.

Uncongested, safe roads and clean air could see an increase in cycling and walking as alternatives through recovery and beyond.

Halfords, Britain’s biggest cycle retailer, said sales of some cycling equipment had risen 500% at the start of the lockdown, while bike sales this month have been double normal levels.

The City Council and County Council will introduce a Zero Emission Zone, which will see diesel and petrol vehicles discouraged from entering Oxford city centre in stages between 2021 and 2036.

Although it was previously thought that emissions were responsible for around 40,000 deaths in the UK every year, new figures (European Heart Journal, March 2019) suggest it is closer to 64,000 – just 18% less than the 78,000 deaths annually caused by tobacco.

Health experts have also warned that there is no safe level of air pollution.

Historic air pollution reduction

Environmental consultancy firm Ricardo Energy and Environment carried out the research by using live air pollution data from across the country, including from the monitoring station in St Aldate’s,Oxford.

The company modelled the expected changed in air pollution between 16 March – before the start of the coronavirus lockdown on 23 March – and early May, and compared this to actual data from the monitoring site.

By removing the influence of weather on air pollution it was possible to identify the fall that can be directly attributed to the coronavirus lockdown.

Highest percentage reduction in UK

As part of the assessment, Ricardo Energy and Environment utilised data from 29 sites across the UK, including in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton and York.

Oxford had the highest percentage reduction in nitrogen dioxide across the sites (59%), followed by Glasgow (55%), Leeds (54%), York (54%), Edinburgh (47%) and Manchester (46%).

The average fall in nitrogen dioxide across the 29 sites was 34%.

Zero Emission Zone

The City Council and County Council will introduce the Zero Emission Zone and Connecting Oxford transport proposals.

In March, the City Council and County Council announced that the launch of the zone would be postponed for six months from late 2020 until summer 2021 as a result of the pandemic.

The Government has suspended all Clean Air Zones, including in Birmingham, Leeds and Bath, until at least January 2021 due to the impact of the pandemic. Oxford was introducing a Zero Emission Zone voluntarily, rather than at the instigation of Government, and requiring higher emissions standards than the Clean Air Zones.

This delay was in recognition that businesses and residents across the city, and particular in the Red Zone, need to focus their attention on managing the current and potential impacts on their trade and way of life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Following consultation with the taxi trade and bus providers, in May both councils also updated the emission standards for Hackney Carriage taxis in Oxford and the timeline for buses to be compliant in the Oxford Zero Emission Zone.

There have been no changes to the timeline for introducing Connecting Oxford.

History of tackling air pollution

The City Council has secured or helped secure around £84m of Government funding in recent years to tackle air pollution and the climate emergency.

Specifically to tackle air pollution in the city centre and help introduce the Zero Emission Zone, the City Council has secured £1.7m to upgrade buses to be ultra-low emission or fully electric, £800,000 to install electric vehicle charging points for residents with on-street parking, and £500,000 to install charging points for taxi owners and operators.

Oxford City Council was named as the number one local authority in the UK for tackling air pollution by Government Business, and ClientEarth named the City Council as one of the best local authorities in the UK for tackling air pollution.

The City Council declared a climate emergency in January 2019, which was followed by the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change in September and October.

One of the key findings of the assembly, which was put together by Ipsos MORI and was broadly demographically representative of the city’s population, was: “Encouraging behaviour change with a shift away from private car use was seen as key.”


“Coronavirus has suddenly given British cities cleaner air. Increasingly, those braving Oxford’s empty streets are crying out to clean up our communities, and this City Council is listening to them. Why should we return to pollution-spewing traffic that harms human health when we know the pandemic is preying on people with underlying health conditions?

“Many pavements are so narrow that it’s all but impossible to pass someone on foot without breaching social distancing rules. To keep people safe and lock in this rare upside to lockdown, we need to rethink how much space we give over to cars then rapidly take the right action. We need to act now to protect the right to walk and cycle safely free from the risk of infection, traffic injury, and emissions-belching cars. Now is the time to make our city’s air cleaner for everyone, including the small number who will still need to drive, including our disabled citizens.”

Councillor Tom Hayes, Cabinet Member for Financial Inclusion and Zero Carbon Oxford

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