UK pays for decade of inaction on air pollution

1990 was a poor year for the UK's air pollution record, with emissions of most major pollutants rising or just holding steady, according to the Department of the Environment's latest annual statistical digest.1

The air pollution figures reflect the lack of positive action to control emissions during the 1980s, although the late 1990s should bring better news on some pollutants.

  • Sulphur dioxide: Emissions of SO2 increased from 3.72 million tonnes in 1989 to 3.77 million in 1990. An 82,000 tonnes increase in power station emissions was responsible. A promise by the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1986 to reduce its emissions year-by-year thereafter appears to have been forgotten.

    On a longer perspective, the UK's emissions of SO2 declined by 23% between 1980 and 1990 due to industrial decline and the shift to gas. Large combustion plant emissions fell by 18% in the same period, bringing the UK close to achieving the initial 20% reduction needed by 1993 under an EC Directive.

  • Smoke: Emissions declined from 502,000 to 453,000 tonnes between 1989 and 1990. The improvement was due largely to a 42,000 tonnes reduction to 149,000 tonnes in the domestic sector, where emissions are now at half their 1980 level. In contrast, smoke emissions from road transport increased from 118,000 to 207,000 tonnes during the decade.

  • Nitrogen oxides: An increase of 12,000 tonnes pushed the 1990 total for NOx to a record 2.73 million tonnes, a rise of 18% since 1980. Vehicles contributed 51% of the total in 1990, up from 35% in 1980. Large combustion plant emissions were 13% down on the 1980 figure in 1990 - again, close to the initial 15% reduction required under EC law by 1993.

  • Volatile organic compounds: National VOC emissions rose slightly from 2.30 to 2.39 million tonnes between 1980-90, although 1990 itself saw a modest decline of 32,000 tonnes. The main sources are industrial processes and solvents (50%) and road transport (41%). However, the figure is likely to be revised upwards sharply when a better inventory of VOC releases from solvent usage and the chemical and oil industries is completed (ENDS Report 202, p 6).

  • Carbon monoxide: All but 10% of this pollutant is emitted by road vehicles. 1990 saw a 1.6% reduction from the previous year's record to 6.66 million tonnes - 32% above the 1980 total of 5.03 million tonnes.

  • Carbon dioxide: Excluding 1984, the year of the miners' strike, the UK's emissions of CO2 fluctuated between 148 and 165 million tonnes (expressed as carbon) per year during the 1980s. The figure for 1990 - now the baseline year against which the UK's pledge to stabilise its emissions around the end of the century will be measured - increased by 3 million tonnes to 160 million. The main sources were power stations (34%), industry (26%), road transport (19%) and homes (14%).

  • Methane: A small reduction in the UK's methane emissions to 4.37 million tonnes in 1990 has occurred since 1980, due almost entirely to the decline of the coal mining industry. However, official estimates of methane releases are 28% higher in this year's digest (see below).

    Among the limited good news on the air pollution front is that the UK's only apparent remaining area in breach of EC air quality standards is Belfast, where smoke and SO2 are the problem. Central government spending on clean air grants in 1990/1 hit a record in cash terms of £2.8 million in 1990/1, while the number of smoke control orders rose steadily from 5,581 in 1980 to 6,342 in 1990.

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