Published: 7th OCTOBER 2020

10 things you can do to help reduce air pollution today

As a big contributor to climate change, air pollution is damaging our planet. It’s important we all do our part in helping to improve the air we breathe.

An Aerial Shot Of Pupils Spelling Out 'We Love Clean Air

Did you know that there is one car for every two people in the UK?

While a large part of the pollution may come from industries and companies that are outside of our control, there are still many things we as individuals can do to make a difference to our air quality.

Here, we answer your most commonly asked questions about air pollution and share ten practical ideas that you can do now to start reducing your impact.


What is air pollution?

Air pollution is the term given to the small particles, chemicals and gases that are released into the air.

These air pollutants can have a harmful impact on the environment and our health if they are breathed in.

Read more about our position on air pollution.


Can you see air pollution?

The gases include CO2, or Carbon Dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere.

When there are too many of these particles we can sometimes physically see the effects in the air as ‘smog’.

You perhaps have seen soot or dust in the air before, in pictures. When smog is visible that means the air is very dangerous to breathe.

There are other air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter than have an impact on health. The World Health Organization found that there were no safe levels of particulate matter.

However, most of the time air pollution can’t be seen. Like oxygen, the particles can be invisible, but that doesn’t stop them from being very harmful.


Where does air pollution come from?

Did you know that there is one car for every two people in the UK?

80% of roadside nitrogen dioxide air pollution, where legal limits are being broken, comes from road transport. The increase in road traffic over recent decades not only impacts the air quality of our towns and cities but also has wider effects such as noise pollution, lack of physical activity, access issues and road traffic collisions.

Heavily congested traffic

CO2 emissions from cars make up 13% of the UK total. If the UK continues as it has done, transport CO2 emissions are predicted to rise by 35% by 2030.

Why is air pollution bad?

Not only is air pollution having a devastating impact on the environment but it is affecting our health too.

Between 28,000 - 36,000 early deaths each year are caused by air pollution in the UK. The health impacts of exposure to air pollution are long-term, as particles worsen respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

At Sustrans, we're working towards quieter and safer places to live and travel with initiatives such as 20-minute neighbourhoods and Brum Breathes - our project which aims to tackle air pollution in Birmingham.

By encouraging more walking and cycling, the roads will be less congested and lead to less pollution.

Why do we need to act on air pollution now?

CO2 emissions from cars make up 13% of the UK total. If the UK continues as it has done, transport CO2 emissions are predicted to rise by 35% by 2030.

So it’s critical that we transform our behaviour in order to achieve our emissions reduction targets.

And one of the easiest ways we can do this is by making changes to the way we travel.

The Department for Transport says that it’s possible to achieve a 60% CO2 reduction in the UK’s domestic transport sector by 2030, but only with real and early change in travel behaviour.

A cycling and walking revolution is needed to reduce Co2 emissions and other air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

Our top ten tips to help make a difference to the quality of our air

Here are 10 quick and easy ways you can both reduce your carbon footprint and help to improve our air today.

1. Go Local

A great way to cut down on car journeys is to start travelling to shops in your local area by walking or cycling.

Combine your trips as much as possible. If going further away consider public transport such as bus or train and buy in bulk.

It's often cheaper and more convenient than driving and parking your car. Then top-up in between big shops by supporting your local businesses.

Take a look at our tips on how to do your shopping by cycle.

To avoid breathing in air pollution from cars on the road, try looking at alternative traffic-free routes.

There are over 5000 traffic-free miles on the National Cycle Network.

Find a traffic-free route near you.


2. Walk or cycle to school

Walking, cycling, or even scooting to school is a fantastic way to start the day.

Start good habits early. Kids who include physical activity in their daily lives are more likely to be active in adult life.

There's plenty of benefits to your own health. And you'll be reducing air pollution and congestion around the school gates.

Download our free family guide to an active school run.


3. Start cycling or walking your commute

Build-in some physical activity to your daily routine, by planning your commute to include active travel.

Try leaving the car at home and travel by bus or train, then walk or cycle that last mile.

Not only does this have the benefit of improving local air quality, but it is great for your mood and physical health.

Public transport helps reduce congestion on roads as well as reducing our individual footprint. CO2 emissions per passenger for train and coach are, on average, six to eight times lower than car travel.

Find out how to commute by cycle with confidence.


4. Cut down on car journeys

One great way to start on your journey to lower air pollution is to go car-free.

Many have achieved this already, but we understand this isn’t always practical, especially if you live further away from amenities.

If you can’t let go of the car just yet, here are a few tips to help lower its impact:

  • Make sure to service it regularly, for example, if your car uses diesel, make sure the particulate filer is emptied regularly.
  • Consider switching to a cleaner car, such as an electric or hybrid, to lower your emissions. When purchasing, check its nitrogen dioxide emissions and avoid diesel if you can.
  • Keep your tyres properly inflated.
  • Turn off your car when stationary in traffic. Leaving the engine running when the car is not moving can release many harmful pollutants into the air around you, as well as wasting fuel.

Read our five tips for going car-free.


5. Give car-sharing a go

If you’re often doing a journey to a similar location, such as work or school, as someone else locally to you it’s worth considering car sharing*.

There are often car-sharing schemes running that are worth taking a look at.

Not only will this help make a difference to the environment by having one less car on the road, but it can save you money on fuel.

Take a look at our advice on using car clubs and car-sharing.

* Make sure you follow local COVID restrictions.

Air Quality Poster Designed By School Child

Kids who include physical activity in their daily lives are more likely to be active in adult life.

6. Switch energy suppliers

Air quality problems can also begin at home. Consider switching energy suppliers to companies who use renewable energy sources.

By checking your Energy Performance Certificate, you can see where there may be room for improvement, such as installing better insulation or more efficient appliances.


7. Avoid burning at home

Domestic burning has increased over the last decade, becoming the largest contributor to the UK’s particulate matter emissions.

Burning solid fuels, such as in open fires and wood-burning stoves have a significant impact on air pollution. Avoid burning leaves and rubbish in your garden too.


8. Cut down on your meat and dairy intake

While the connection between eating meat and air quality may not seem immediately obvious, scientists have found that animal agriculture is actually the largest producer of air pollutants at over 50%.

Cattle and dairy farming is responsible for a large number of ammonia emissions, which cause pollution not only in the air but to surface and ground waters.

Take a look at 9 of our favourite vegan-friendly restaurants on the National Cycle Network.


9. Plant more trees and greenery

Supporting local garden initiatives (or starting your own) can help improve the long-term air quality in your local neighbourhood. Plants help clean the air around them by consuming CO2.

For inspiration and advice, The Tree Council is a good resource on which trees may be good for your neighbourhood.


10. Support Clean Air legislation

Keep an eye on local developments and policy changes that are focused on air pollution.

One such policy that areas in the UK are looking at is developing Clean Air Zones.

Air pollution is most acute on busy and congested roads in our towns and cities. 

We believe that a broader network of Clean Air Zones (also known as Low Emission Zones in London and Scotland) that reduce motorised transport, underpinned by a legal framework which sets minimum standards and consistency between towns and cities is required.

This should run alongside a roll-out of ‘school streets’ (streets closed to motor traffic outside schools) to protect children, who are most vulnerable to air pollution.

See what we think about the Clean Air Strategy.



Read more about air quality and our contribution to Public Health England's Air Quality Review.


Read our response to the UK parliament's environment and climate emergency declaration.

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