If the government implements planned environmental, transport and clean air policies, air pollution levels could fall within the recommended interim target from the World Health Organization (WHO) across most parts of the UK by 2030. This is according to a new study commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, and conducted by independent researchers from Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group via Imperial Projects.

“This is a win, win, win scenario,” said Jane Burston, Executive Director at the Clean Air Fund. “This new research shows us that achieving much healthier air is possible across the vast majority of the UK by 2030 based on policies the government already plans to implement or that have been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The new air quality target for the UK should therefore align with WHO-10 at a minimum, with a view to further reducing pollution beyond this in the future. It is necessary, beneficial and achievable, and will save lives and money.”

Implementing existing government plans by 2030 would have significant positive impacts on public health, and could lead to children across the UK suffering an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year. The UK would also see a fall in cases of coronary heart disease of over 3,000 cases on average per year, and a rise in average life expectancy of 9-10 weeks across those born in 2018. In total, the health and economic benefits, including reduced pressure on the NHS and higher productivity, could be worth up to £380bn between 2018 and 2134.

The WHO guideline limit for fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 – was updated in 2021 in light of accumulated scientific evidence on the dangers of even low levels of air pollution. The guideline limit was reduced from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (WHO-10) to 5 micrograms per cubic metre, with WHO-10 now an ‘interim target’. The current UK target is 20 micrograms per cubic metre – four times higher than the new WHO recommendation – and is due to be updated later this year.

Campaigners have been calling for the UK to align its targets with WHO guidelines for many years. Last year the coroner overseeing the inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah – the first person in the UK to have air pollution recognised as a cause of death on her death certificate – recommended that the government adopt the WHO guidelines as targets in his Prevention of Future Deaths report*.

Researchers showed that the WHO-10 interim target is achievable almost everywhere in the

UK by 2030, with less than 1% of the country predicted to experience pollution above the WHO interim target. Even in historically highly polluted areas like London, drastic improvements in air quality are projected (the area of London exceeding WHO-10 is predicted to drop to 0.6% by 2030 from 83% in 2018), with some additional actions required to bring these places in line with WHO-10.

PM2.5 is the most damaging type of air pollution: breathing it in for just a few hours or days is harmful, and exposure over months or years is particularly dangerous. It is associated with multiple causes of death – including coronary heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia – as well as both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases including asthma. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with heart and lung diseases are particularly vulnerable.

Making a legal commitment to reduce PM2.5 levels to below WHO-10 would make the UK the second European country to do so, and set an example for other countries facing the air pollution crisis.