Analysis: Is pollution increasing in the UK?


How bad is air pollution in the UK?

By Daikin

Currently, climate change has become a threat across the UK that cannot be ignored. If we did, the damages would be too great for all walks of life on the planet.

These terms may appear dramatic, but the fact is that they are dramatic. The impact of climate change has scaled to an enormous level, for the planet and every living creature on it. Even the likes of Bill Nye, who has a similar appeal to Americans to what Sir David Attenborough has on the British public, is not holding back with this alerting term.

“By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature of the Earth could go up another four to eight degrees,” Bill Nye said on Last Week Tonight

At the same time, Sir David Attenborough appearance on Climate Change saw him delivering this dramatic truth, in a raw and clear message: that global warming is the planet’s greatest threat, witnessed in thousands of years.

Climate change is indeed terrifying however, it isn’t a permanent outcome. Governments across the world have pledged to clean up their emissions and waste in recent years. We’re becoming more aware of our waste and a lot more of us are recycling more and seeking renewable sources of energy. We’re even to removing single-use plastic from our supply chain and swapping energy-efficient appliances in favour of eco-friendly options, such as condensing boilers and energy-saving bulbs.

Despite all our efforts, are we seeing improvements at all? To be able to measure our efforts, we review the air quality statistic reports produced by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

What’s impacting the UK’s air quality?

Before doing into depth about the specific elements that are monitored for air quality purposes, it’s important to take in what affects the UK’s air quality. We all know pollutants from vehicles and fossil fuels are a prime contributor to dangerous emissions and poor air quality, but other factors can also affect our air quality, such as: 

  • Emissions from Europe and the wider world
  • Weather conditions, such as heat in the summer, can cause changes in air quality 

What is in the air?


Particle Matter (PM10) These particles could be solid or liquid, come from natural or human sources and can be a variety of sizes. Particulate matter concentration in the air is measured in micrograms per cubic metre (µg m–3). Particulate matter itself is measured in diameter from as small as a nanometre (nm), such as viruses, to micrometres (µm), such as human hair (100 µm). 

PM10 covers the particulate matter in the air that is less than or equal to 10 µm in diameter. Some examples of particulate matter of this size range include: 

  • Dust (<10 µm)
  • Pollen (<10 µm)
  • Red blood cells (7-8 µm approx.)

PM10 in the grouped in two ways: Primary or Secondary components. Primary components are released into the air from a source directly, from plants and secondary components are created by chemical reactions in the atmosphere such as sulphate acid, which is formed when sulphur dioxide oxidises in the air to produce sulphuric acid, which then reacts to ammonium sulphate in the air. 

What’s the issue with PM10?

Well, small particles in the air are considered to be harmful to humans. There is evidence to suggest particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less is particularly harmful; carbon and trace metals in the air, for example. These particulates have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. 

Are we seeing a decrease in the UK?

DEFRA had revealed the levels of urban background PM10 pollution has reduced at a great amount between 1992 and 2018. The most dramatic fall was between 1992 and 2000, with an average yearly reduction of around 1.6 μg/m3. However, the increase in PM10 between 2017 and 2018 has been noted as “statistically insignificant” by the report.


PM2.5 again refers to a particular matter that pollutes the air around us. It is measured the same way and covers particulates with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less. Basically, these are some of the smallest particulates in the air that the country monitors. Like PM10, PM2.5 can come from manmade or natural sources and can be primary components released directly from the source to the air, or secondary components formed from a chemical reaction within the air. 

Some examples of these tiny particulates are: 

  • Combustion particles (<2.5 µm)
  • Nanotube electrodes (1 µm)
  • Trace metals (<2.5 µm)

What’s the issue with PM2.5?

PM2.5 gives similar issues to PM10, it’s bad for our respiration. These tiny particles can cause, as well as aggravate, respiratory diseases, cause plaque deposits in the arteries, and even lead to heart attacks or strokes. PM2.5 tend to stay in the air much longer than PM10 due to being lighter, which means people have a greater chance of inhaling them. Plus, as they are so small, the nose and lungs are not always able to filter them before they reach our lungs. The elderly and children are particularly vulnerable to this. 

Are we seeing a decrease in the UK?

We have a decrease of PM2.5 for urban background pollution compared to 2009, with an average yearly concentration of 9.5 μg/m3 in 2017 the lowest in the recorded range. 


Nitrogen dioxide (No2) is measured in micrograms (µg) in the air. It is produced by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, as a primary component released directly into the air. It can also be produced as a secondary component when nitrogen oxide and ozone react in the air, producing nitrogen dioxide and oxygen. 

What’s the issue with NO2?

It’s defined by DEFRA that NO2 can inflame the lungs, which affects how our lung works, often damaging them and aggravate the symptoms of asthma. NO2 also has an adverse effect on crops and vegetation. 

Are we seeing a decrease in the UK?

We have seen a reduction of NO2  since the 1990s and recent years within the UK. In particular, there was a rapid decrease in the amount of NO2 in the air between 1992 and 2002, with an average yearly reduction of around 2.7 μg/m3. 


Also known as Ozone, o3 like NO2 is measured in μg. No doubt we’ve all heard about the ozone — it protects the Earth from ultraviolet rays from the sun, and it is being destroyed by manmade emissions. Ozone is a good thing, we’re all told. 

Well, yes and no. As AirNow explains, when it comes to ozone, it is “good up high, bad nearby”. Essentially, when ozone is high up in the planet’s stratosphere, it’s good. It’s protecting us, and we’re also not breathing it in at this level. But at ground level, (the troposphere), ozone is bad news for people and plants alike. 

What’s the issue with O3?

O3 developed at ground level is usually produced by chemical reactions between both nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, both being industrial emissions, vehicles and solvents. It is particularly prominent in the summer months, as these chemical reactions occur under the heat of the sun. 

Breathing in high concentrations of O3 at ground level can cause: 

  • Throat irritation
  • Lung irritation and coughing
  • Chest pains
  • Reduced lung function
  • Inflammation of the lungs 

It also damages crops aswell increases the chances of plants attracting diseases and pests.

Are we seeing a decrease in the UK?

Definitely not, the levels of urban background ozone have increased over the long term, DEFRA revealed that in the last decade we’ve seen ozone being “stable”. Between 2017 and 2018, the concentration of O3 increased from 58.3 μg/m3 to 62.8 μg/m3. There are a few reasons why this increase may have occurred: 

  • Hot weather conditions create high ozone concentrations, and so, the heatwaves experienced in the UK in 2018, 2006, and 2003 – will have caused notable increases in O3
  • The UK and Europe have reduced their nitrogen oxide emissions as a whole. Nitrogen oxide is known to reduce ozone formation. This is something of a double-edged sword: we have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions, which has, in turn, reduced nitrogen dioxide pollution in the air (which is formed from nitrogen oxide and ozone reacting in the air, producing nitrogen dioxide and oxygen). But in doing so, the ozone in the air has nothing to react to, meaning it stays! 

Overall, we’re are certainly seeing improvements in the UK when it comes to emissions and air quality. We still have a lot of work to do, particularly with our O3 levels. We also need to take drastic action in other climate change-causing behaviours, such as waste and recycling. 

This article was produced in collaboration with Daikin.

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