London has some of the poorest air quality in the UK. With its large population and dense road network being perpetually busy, high levels of the common pollutants, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter (comprising of PM10 and PM2.5) are observed city-wide. In 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its guidelines for pollutant concentration targets, including PM2.5, which the Greater London Authority has also adopted.
This ambitious target for London aims to go further than the UK-wide objectives detailed in the ‘Environmental Improvement Plan’ (EIP) published earlier this year. Whereas the EIP’s long-term target for PM2.5 is to have reduced the annual mean concentration to 10 µg/m3 nationwide by 2040, the GLA aims to meet this value a full decade earlier, by 2030. London would therefore be complying with the guidelines set by WHO.
Over the last several years, a clear trend of falling pollutant concentrations has been observed throughout London, evidenced by air quality monitoring undertaken by local authorities. This downward trend is generally expected to continue as vehicles produce fewer emissions and more high-level initiatives are put in place by local authorities.
Similar trends are seen in background pollutant mapping data published by DEFRA. However, the projected future year background data indicate that PM2.5 concentrations will not drop off at the same rate as other pollutants and may instead stabilise in the years leading up to 2030. This lack of future year drop-off is partially linked to the widespread use of electric vehicles likely to occur over the next decade. Whilst EVs have zero exhaust emissions, particulate matter emissions are generated mostly by brakes and tyres. This means that the greater use of EVs may not necessarily have a benefit on overall particulate matter concentrations, especially given that EVs are often heavier due to their large batteries, putting more strain on the particulate-emitting components of the vehicle.
Given the considerable challenge of meeting the 2030 target, some inner London local authorities are taking steps to help accelerate the fall in pollutant levels. This is in addition to the previously existing ‘Air Quality Neutral’ and more recent ‘Air Quality Positive’ approach, which is a requirement for developments throughout London, seeking to minimise pollution whilst maximising benefits to local air quality.
A new initiative being delivered by the London Borough of Merton’s specialist air quality unit, “Cleaner Construction for London”, is a pioneering low emissions zone for construction, involving the auditing of NRMM emissions from construction sites to help reduce emissions throughout Greater London.
The local councils of Camden and Westminster have also set out measures to help improve air quality in their respective Air Quality Action Plans (AQAP).
Camden was the first London council to formally adopt the WHO guidelines in 2018. Camden’s AQAP indicates that a key approach is to reduce emissions through the development management system. This includes ensuring that all significant construction sites have real-time particulate monitoring on site and that this information is easily accessible to the public.
Similarly, Westminster’s AQAP commits to working to meet WHO guidelines, going above and beyond the baseline legal requirements. Actions to achieve this include the possibility of altering Westminster’s resident parking permit structure to encourage a modal shift away from private vehicles and implementing innovative projects to reduce emissions from non-road sources.
Environmental consultancies such as Temple also play a vital role in helping to reduce pollutant emissions and achieve the 2030 target. This can involve Temple helping developers to control emissions from non-road mobile machinery by advising on the optimal equipment and strategies for specific sites. Temple has also undertaken continuous particulate matter monitoring at many construction sites throughout London, with the ability to identify exceedances in real-time, enabling Temple to inform developers so that site operators can take immediate action to mitigate emissions.
With more innovative measures being implemented by local authorities to help improve air quality, as well as developers being provided with effective advice from knowledgeable experts to minimise their emissions, these both facilitate the move towards the 2030 target. It is likely that further incentives to address air quality issues throughout Greater London and instil a genuine commitment to tackle this will be necessary in order to reach this target within the timeframe.