Clean Air Zones – The positives, negatives and public perception

08.06.2023 4 min read

Clean Air Zones (CAZs) have been introduced in various UK cities as part of the government’s efforts to reduce air pollution and improve public health. However, their implementation has been met with both positive and negative responses from the public. The potential benefits and drawbacks of introducing CAZs and how public perception can influence their implementation are explored further in the following article.

Government Policy and Legislation    

In terms of legislation, the introduction of CAZs is primarily governed by the Environment Act 1995 and the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010. More recently, the government has introduced the Environment Bill, which includes measures to improve air quality and reduce pollution. The bill includes provisions for the introduction of mandatory emission limits for certain pollutants, as well as measures to improve the monitoring and reporting of air quality data. The Environment Bill includes a target for annual mean concentration target for PM2.5 levels in England to be 10 µg per m3 or below by 2040, which if attainable may involve the successful implementation of CAZs in UK cities.

Benefits of Clean Air Zones                                                                                     

Given that road traffic is a significant contributor to air pollution, CAZs aim to reduce the number of high-emission vehicles on the roads, leading to an improvement in air quality within the zone. This can help to reduce levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter, which are linked to a range of health issues including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This indirectly leads to support and growth of the green economy and reduces the UK’s carbon footprint.

Negative Impact of Clean Air Zones                                                                       

In some cases, these groups may not be able to afford to upgrade their vehicles or pay the charges associated with driving in a CAZ, which in turn can have a disproportionate impact on those who rely on their vehicles for work, such as delivery drivers or tradespeople. There is also concern that CAZs may push high-emission vehicles into other areas outside of the zone, which could potentially worsen air quality in those areas, leading to the expansion of the CAZ or local authorities declaring new air quality management areas (AQMAs) in their area of jurisdiction, due to the redirected traffic causing congestion and increased vehicle related emissions, causing exceedances of the annual mean air quality objectives for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter. Therefore, there is a clear need for a coordinated approach to tackling air pollution across the UK, to ensure that measures taken in one area do not simply displace the problem to another.

Public Perception of Clean Air Zones                                                               

 Some members of the public may view the charges associated with driving in a CAZ as a “tax on drivers”, while others may support the measures as necessary to improve air quality, particularly from a sustainability standpoint. In order to assuage these potential negative impacts, the UK government has also introduced financial incentives to encourage the adoption of low-emission vehicles, such as the Plug-In Car Grant and the Clean Vehicle Retrofit Accreditation Scheme. Local authorities also have a key role to play in the implementation, with the government providing funding and guidelines for each council to develop and implement CAZs. To support their implementation, local authorities can also introduce other measures to encourage the use of low-emission transport, particularly public transport. Examples of this include the introduction of low-emission bus fleets, such as those in Birmingham, and also in Manchester, which along with the introduction of low-emission buses, has implemented a Pay As You Ride (PAYR) public cycle scheme throughout the city.                                                                                                                 

The introduction of Clean Air Zones in the UK is a complex issue, with both benefits and drawbacks to consider. While CAZs have the potential to significantly improve air quality and support the targets laid out in the Environment Bill, care must be taken not to simply shift the causes of poor air quality to different areas. Ultimately, for the UK government to meet its legally binding targets, initiatives like the CAZs should be encouraged and should be just part of a wider range of plans to reduce air quality related impacts throughout the UK.


Key Contacts

Harry Porter
Dr Xiangyu Sheng Director - Air Quality, Climate & Carbon