Environment News

Oxford air pollution increases for the first time in 8 years

A report released by Oxford City Council yesterday revealed that the city’s air pollution levels during 2019 increased, the first significant rise since 2011.

Data from the city’s seventy-one air pollution monitoring locations has shown that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) increased by an average of 7.9% between 2018-2019.

However, the report, which can be read in full here, finds that such increases can be explained largely by extreme episodes of cold and still weather which created the ideal conditions for levels of pollutants to increase, especially during January, February, April and November.

Across the sixty-four locations which were monitored in 2018 and 2019, 70% showed an increase in levels of pollution, 16% measured the same levels, and only 9% were found to show a slight decrease in NO2.

Of the seventy-one monitoring locations overall, 6 were in breach of the annual legal limit on levels of NO2. These included St Clements, which continued to have the highest annual mean, the area around the Westgate, and the High Street, which saw an increase in NO2 levels of 12% on the previous year.

The report will be of concern to students with several of the most popular student locations being the most polluted areas of the city, including St Aldates, George Street and the High Street.

The increase highlights the fact that more still needs to be done to reduce harmful and illegal levels of pollution, especially in the centre of Oxford, despite the fact that NO2 levels have fallen by 29% in the last decade. This decrease can be attributed to the introduction of a Low Emission Zone for buses in 2014 as well as a switch to cleaner bus engines following government funding. Furthermore, Oxford has submitted a bid to become the first all-electric bus city in Britain through the Government’s All-Electric Bus Town fund.

The report also found that whilst air pollution levels have been dropping, this decline has reached a plateau, “suggesting that more robust actions to tackle air quality in the city are required.”

In March, Oxford City Council published proposals for a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) in Oxford city centre, plans which were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and which are due to be implemented in the summer of 2021. Oxford’s ZEZ phase one will include a £10 charge to drive within the zone per day, as well as plans for buses and taxis to reduce their emissions when operating within the city centre. In addition, zero emission vehicles will be able to drive inside the zone free of charge.

City Councillor Tom Hayes, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Green Transport commented on the report’s findings, stating that while Oxford has “made progress” in improving air quality, the city “needs to bring in cleaner buses, reduce the numbers of fossil fuel vehicles on our roads, and create segregated cycle routes”.

In a comment for The Oxford Blue, Councillor Hayes recognised that more needed to be done, saying, “nobody who is living, working, commuting, or visiting the city should breathe in toxic air which can harm their health.”

Councillor Hayes added, “we are working very hard with our partners Oxfordshire County Council on introducing the Zero Emission Zone in a time of global pandemic. We are planning to resume the consultation later this year, with plans to implement the scheme next summer.”

Last month, The Blue reported on data released by the City Council which showed that the transport sector contributes 68% of the city’s total emissions, eclipsing those from domestic sources (19%) and from industry and services (12%).

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas 2020. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.