Air Quality

Thinking Outside The Box – Is A Clean Air Zone The Way To Tackle Dirty Air?

Local clean air campaThinking outside the box - header image.pagesigners barely had time to catch their breath last week, with several events relating to air quality taking place across the city. The launch of Clean Air Southampton, the announcement of the City Council’s clean air strategy and a Researchers’ Café on air quality all served to raise awareness of dirty air in Southampton.

Perhaps it should have been dubbed ‘Clean Air Week’ for Southampton?
An idea for next year perhaps. We need to see whether the levels of air pollution will have dropped in 12 months time. Anyone looking at the results from last week’s ‘smogmobile’ survey would hope so.

Do you mean the electric van with air quality monitoring equipment?
The very same. It was driven around the city throughout the day to monitor roadside emissions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates, and below are some of the results from the survey. This only provides a snapshot of the air quality in our city, but if these levels of NO2 were to continue throughout the year, Southampton would be in significant breach of the EU annual limit for this noxious gas.

NO2_complete web

Map of the smogmobile’s route. Dark green, yellow & orange dots indicate air pollution levels above EU annual limit. Image: Lewis John/Enviro Technology Services Plc

Duncan Mounsor of Enviro Technology Services plc which operates the Smogmobile said:

“Our observations show that the average NO2 concentration over the day (between 8am to 3:30pm) of all the routes we drove and during the time we were parked up at West Quay was 63.15 µg/m3, which is over 50% higher than the annual limit value of 40 µg/m3.

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NO2 monitor in the smogmobile. Photo: Climate Conversations

This photograph of the NO2 monitor in the Smogmobile shows a reading of 26.270 ppb (parts per billion) which equates to 50 µg/m3, again exceeding the EU limit. At the time, the van was parked up at the main entrance to West Quay, away from any main roads, demonstrating that the background level of air pollution is also a significant problem.

So what about the council’s strategy on air quality?
Southampton City Council is one of five cities in the UK that will be required to implement a Clean Air Zone as a method of tackling air pollution. The council plans to have this in place by 2019, with fines for the drivers of certain vehicles which enter the zone. If that seems rather a long time to wait, the mandatory zone will be preceded by a voluntary one (vCAZ) at some point next year. The stated aim is to “help raise awareness amongst vehicle users of the measures that can be taken to improve the emissions they produce.” The council intends to publish a Clean Air Strategy in the summer, which may appear in tandem with the government’s national framework and legislation on air quality.

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Potential Clean Air Zone for Southampton. Image: Southampton City Council/Steve Guppy

How will a Clean Air Zone help to tackle air pollution?
There are different classes of Clean Air Zone and Southampton is due to get Class B. This will only exclude the most polluting HGVs, buses and taxis, i.e. those not meeting the Euro VI emissions standard. Light goods vehicles and cars will still be able to drive into this part of the city.

However, the council’s own update on air quality states that cars and LGVs together are responsible for the same amount of air pollution as HGVs – in total all these vehicles produce two thirds of the pollution from road transport. So, if passenger vehicles were also excluded, it would have a greater impact on the quality of our air. Liz Batten of Clean Air Southampton has noted:

“Private cars will still be allowed into the City with no controls or alternatives in place, and we know that they can emit many times the permitted levels of harmful chemicals. A recent review of [Low Emission Zone] studies has shown that a Clean Air Zone is unlikely to reduce the pollution we are exposed to.”

This review paper looked at many of the 200 low emission zones (LEZs) across Europe. It found that there is minimal improvement in air quality in such areas, unless passenger vehicles are included. But, even then, German LEZs which ban passenger vehicles have only demonstrated a 4% decrease in NO2 concentrations and 7% for PM10.

So, the UK Government is flogging us an air quality policy off the back of a lorry?
It does seem that it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. In March the law firm ClientEarth took the government back to court over air pollution. This is because Defra’s strategy, published on 17 December 2015, would not reduce air pollution to within legal limits until 2025. The original, legally binding deadline was way back in 2010. The latest video about the court action can be found here.

This thought is echoed in the latest report on air quality (27 April) by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee:

“Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions.”

On top of this, researchers looking into the long-term effects of air pollution are questioning whether meeting EU limits would actually be enough to put the brakes on rising mortality from dirty air. Defra’s plan is based on the idea that there are ‘acceptable’ limits for air pollution. However, a recent report by The Royal College of Physicians (Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution) finds that no level of exposure to these toxic gases and particulates can be thought of as safe. The report asks whether the cost outweighs the benefits to public health:
“The reality is that agreed standards often incorporate considerations of practicality, i.e. by how much is it economically reasonable to reduce emissions?”


And all this against the background of further diesel car scandals …
Quite. It was recently discovered that 97% of new diesel cars have failed to meet emissions standards when driven under ‘real-world’ conditions and that garages have been removing diesel particulate filters.

So if the emissions from diesel vehicles are higher than we thought, then local air pollution should also be worse?
It’s hard to tell. Defra scrapped the legal requirement for monitoring stations a few years ago, citing the need to tackle air pollution rather than monitor it. But this begs the question: If we don’t know the extent of the problem, how can we possibly deal with it?

In fact, Defra’s plan for tackling NO2 in Southampton is based on measurements from a single air quality monitoring station within the city, in conjunction with modelled data. There are actually four monitoring stations within the city plus 60 NO2 diffusion tubes, but it is unclear whether data from these were included in the methodology.

OK. So we need to crackdown on road vehicles. And that’s it?
No – as you may have noticed, Southampton is a port city. Smokestack emissions from international shipping kill approximately 50,000 people a year in Europe, at an annual cost to society of more than €58 billion. Recently there were reports of concerns about worsening air pollution in London as a consequence of cruise ships making their way up the Thames. Southampton is the UK’s busiest cruise ship port, not to mention the large numbers of cargo ships visiting the container port. This further creates dangerous air pollution at the docks. And we also have an airport …

So how are other cities tackling the problem of dirty air?
Zurich, Copenhagen, Vienna are European cities which have been thinking outside of the (metal) box in terms of tackling air pollution, by taking the focus away from cars and lorries. Well-funded public transport networks, car-free days, higher parking fees and promotion of walking and cycling are just some of the elements which have led to healthier air.

Closer to home we can look at the transformation of Leicester where town planners have been reclaiming space for people rather than for cars, by creating more cycleways and pedestrianised zones. The city has an elected mayor which has made it easier to make ‘bold decisions’ in relation to sustainable travel. Here’s hoping that a mayor for the Solent area will be able to do the same – but can we wait for May 2017 for this to happen?

And in the meantime …
The City Council has proposed a range of other measures alongside the Clean Air Zone, including a Clean Air Partnership, Clean Air Recognition Scheme, ultra-low emission taxis and a Freight Quality Partnership.

Work is also being done with some of the 90 schools in Southampton to raise awareness of air quality issues. A project was recently run by Hazel Agombar, School Travel Plan Officer for Southampton City Council, to measure air quality in school playgrounds.

The Western Docks Consultation Forum (WDCF) is running a competition, introduced on Earth Day (22 April), to raise awareness about air quality in the city. Primary school children across Southampton have been asked to write a poem or create a poster about air pollution, with prizes awarded in different categories. The poems will be displayed in the Civic Centre (6th – 17th June) just after World Environment Day on 5th June. If you’d like to find out whether your school is in an air pollution hotspot, take a look at this map.

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Prize giving at the 2015 WDCF competition. Photograph: WDCF

This all sounds good, but I still can’t believe we should have to do this
Breathing clean air, just like drinking clean water, should be something that all people can safely assume. The fact that air pollution is hard to see has made it hard to control. Tell your councillors and MP this needs to be fixed.

With thanks to Liz Batten, Colin MacQueen, Duncan Mounsor, Steve Guppy and Hazel Agombar

6 thoughts on “Thinking Outside The Box – Is A Clean Air Zone The Way To Tackle Dirty Air?

  1. Hello
    Important survey and interesting map. Did the van travel down Bullar Road or Cobbett Road after it crossed Cobden Bridge and on its way to Bitterne Road?


  2. Hi Christine, yes it did. It started from Tesco Bursledon at 8 am and drove straight towards town, then right at the lights into Bullar Road and down Cobden Avenue and over Cobden Bridge to Portswood. You can see that, even on a fairly light day for traffic, it was registering high pollution all the way


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