Edinburgh's improvement in air quality 'won't last without more action'

St John's Road, Corstorphine, always one of the worst spots for pollution, saw a dramatic improvement in 2020St John's Road, Corstorphine, always one of the worst spots for pollution, saw a dramatic improvement in 2020
St John's Road, Corstorphine, always one of the worst spots for pollution, saw a dramatic improvement in 2020
A temporary dip in traffic levels during the first lockdown which saw Edinburgh meet tough emission targets for the first time are unlikely to bring long-term health benefits, campaigners have warned as they called for the Capital to redouble efforts to clean up its air.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the city’s most polluted streets have been breaking EU safety limits since they were set in 2010, but last year’s first Covid lockdown saw the figures drop dramatically.

For the first time ever, Edinburgh did not record illegal levels of air pollution. Nicolson Street, for example, saw nitrogen dioxide – showing diesel pollution – fall from an average of 50 µg/m3 in 2019 to 26.5 µg/m3 in 2020.

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But Friends of the Earth Scotland said while the improvements, due to reduced traffic, was welcome, it would not last.

The group’s air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson said: “Edinburgh’s car dominated transport system was brought to a halt in spring, and this is why our annual averages of pollution are much lower than previous years. Any improvements in air quality in Edinburgh have been short-lived with traffic quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“We need to remember that pollution damages our health through long-term exposure, such as living near a main road throughout your childhood. So, the reduced pollution for a couple of months during the strictest lockdown is unlikely to have many long-term health benefits.

“The health links between air pollution and Covid-19 should push us to redouble our efforts to clean up our air and protect public health."

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He said the city’s planned Low Emission Zone should help improve air quality permanently. “But lengthy delays, even before Covid, have forced people in Edinburgh to keep breathing polluted air.”

And he said a permanent improvement in pollution needed a determined effort.

“The increase in cycling we witnessed in 2020 gives us a chance to think differently about how we move around the city.

“The temporary improvements in air quality in 2020 arrived at an enormous cost to our communities and societies. There was no intention or concerted political action to reduce emissions, which is why the falls were not maintained when restrictions eased.

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"We need a just and green recovery, including investment in our public transport and more options for safe walking and cycling, to permanently improve the air we breathe.”

Dirtiest streets for Nitrogen DioxideThe European Ambient Air Quality Directive sets a limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre.

NO2 levels (µg/m3) 2020 compared with 2019Edinburgh Nicolson Street 26.50 50.37Edinburgh St John's Road 25.77 41.85Edinburgh Queensferry Road 24.93 36.93Edinburgh Gorgie Road 18.48 27.00Edinburgh Glasgow Road 14.98 25.08Edinburgh St Leonards 13.42 20.79

Dirtiest streets for fine particles (PM10)The Scottish annual statutory standard for particulate matter (PM10) is 18 micrograms per cubic metre. PM10 levels (µg/m3) 2020 compared with 2019Edinburgh Salamander St 15.93 17.13Edinburgh Queensferry Road 11.16 -----Edinburgh St John's Road 9.92 13.64Edinburgh Nicolson Street 9.51 ------Edinburgh Tower Street 8.49 10.70Edinburgh St Leonards 8.05 10.94

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