Air pollution: All Scotland's main monitoring sites met legal safety standards. Here's why that's not as good news as it sounds – Dr Richard Dixon

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s annual round-up of air pollution found that, last year, all the main monitoring sites in Scotland met legal standards set to protect health. This has only happened once before, when the pandemic lockdown drastically reduced traffic levels.

Part of the reason is that traffic levels have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels but Glasgow’s low-emission zone has also driven a rapid improvement in emissions from buses in the city. Hope Street, often Scotland’s most polluted street, showed a big improvement, coming just within the current health standard in 2022. Further low-emission zones are coming for Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh and they will eventually apply to cars as well as buses.

FoE’s analysis looked at the official data for the network of automatic air quality monitoring sites across Scotland. There are also more local measurements made using simple monitors at a wider range of sites. These often reveal local pollution hotspots but we will not start to see last year’s results from these until later this year.

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Environmental Standards Scotland looked at air quality last year, prompted by UK and EU court judgments criticising consistent failures to address nitrogen dioxide pollution in the UK. Its investigation found continuing failures to meet standards and recommended a series of improvements in the way that action on air quality is planned and managed. (I am on the board of ESS but did not play any part in the air quality investigation because I was still the director of FoE Scotland when it began).

It is great news that the current standards have been met, at least at the automatic monitoring sites, but new standards are coming. The European Union is planning to adopt the latest World Health Organisation standards for air pollution, which are mostly much tougher than the current standards. For instance, the annual average nitrogen dioxide standard would go from the current 40 micrograms per cubic meter to only ten. So of the 74 sites which FoE found to have passed the current standard in 2022, 67 would have failed the likely new standard.

And, of course, if a value of more than ten is going to be judged to be legally bad for you in the future, it is also bad for you today, even though it is not backed up by any legal force. So people are still living with levels of air pollution, mostly from traffic, which are bad for them, with links to a catalogue of health issues including asthma, heart attacks, strokes, low birthweight, poor lung development and dementia.

The Scottish Government has promised to try to keep up with EU legislation so we are likely to try to adopt these new standards when they come into force in Europe, but the UK Government may try to block this through market protection laws if it thinks tougher standards in Scotland might disadvantage, for instance, makers of polluting vehicles or badly designed wood stoves.

Any improvement in the quality of the air we are breathing is very welcome but, with more than 2,000 people a year killed off by air pollution, there is quite a way to go before we can actually call Scotland’s air “clean”.

Air pollution targets are set to be reduced because of the damage it causes to health (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant

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