A team of scientists from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the University of York have shown that the most deprived areas in England experience the highest levels of air pollution. Researchers compared emissions of nitrogen oxides in England with data from the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) used by the UK government to quantify deprivation across England.
They found that there are significant inequalities in where air pollution emissions occur. “The inequalities in the distribution of emissions are particularly significant for nitrogen oxides. People experiencing the highest levels of deprivation often live closest to major roads and in areas of high housing density. Densely populated areas expose residents to pollutants created by combustion from heating,” explained Dr Sarah Moller, a senior research fellow at NCAS and the University of York.
Nathan Gray, a PhD researcher at the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories at the University of York who carried out this research, said, “It is often assumed that people living in cities will be exposed to the highest levels of air pollution. Our research shows that while the difference in air pollution between the city and the countryside does drive inequalities, those in more deprived areas will likely have worse air quality regardless of whether they live in the city or more rural areas.”
Deprivation-based inequality was found across all major NOX emission sources, such as transportation, domestic and commercial heating, factories and power plants. “This shows that sources of NOX beyond road transportation are also important drivers of air pollution inequality,” explained Dr Moller.
Reducing future air pollution inequalities
Although at a national level air pollution continues to fall, poor air quality is still the greatest environmental risk to human health. The UK’s air pollution in the coming few decades will be different from the recent or distant past – and it will change as energy supplies and transportation systems are decarbonized, lifestyles and working practices evolve, and new materials, products and processes are adopted.
Researchers hope that better understanding of NOX emissions will have important implications for future UK government policies aimed at reducing inequalities in air pollution.
“Inequalities will persist in the future. Location plays such a large part in determining what emissions people are exposed to, and it is not yet clear how future policy will impact the level of inequality,” stated Dr Moller.
As inequalities are driven by the uneven distribution of emissions from several sources, future policies should recognize that reducing national vehicle emissions is not the only solution to reducing overall inequalities in air pollution.
Dr Moller added, “Some changes should be beneficial, such as reducing nitrogen dioxide concentrations from road vehicles. The future impact of other measures is less certain, for example, choices around decarbonization of domestic heating.
“Decarbonization of domestic heating will impact inequalities in exposure – but whether this improves the situation or makes it worse will depend on which technology is chosen, and whether any emissions from alternative fuels are managed effectively.”
The research team suggests that region-specific emissions-reduction strategies will be important in determining future emissions inequality, and that policies that focus on a range of emissions sources – not just road transportation – need to be considered for their impact on that inequality.
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