Oxford has seen its first increase in air pollution levels since 2011, according to a report published by Oxford City Council. The report attributes extreme weather as the reason for the rise.

Between 2018 and 2019, 71 air pollution monitoring locations reported that levels of toxic Nitrogen Dioxide gas (NO2) have increased by an average of 7.9%. For comparison, the increase was 6.9% in 2011. The report suggests that a “plateauing” of pollution levels, seen in recent years, would have continued were it not for extreme weather conditions in February, April and November of 2019.

In all three months, the city experienced unusually cold weather. Combined with high pressure, this created stable atmospheric conditions that made it harder for pollutants to disperse.

The lack of any significant increase in traffic and the fact that the increased pollution was measured across the whole of the city was deemed to rule out other possible explanations.

Across the 64 sites where NO2 was measured in both 2018 and 2019, 70% showed an increase in the levels of the toxic gas. Only 16% measured levels similar to the previous year and 9% had reduced levels of the gas.

Councillor Tom Hayes, the Deputy leader and Cabinet Member for Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford, said to Cherwell: “Unlike the smog from industrial chimneys and cigarette smoke, you can’t see the air pollution caused by fossil fuel vehicles. However, we can see the evidence of its impact in the ill health of residents exposed to polluted air. The poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected by air pollution, and the Labour-led City Council is unwilling to accept that injustice.

“But for the three months of extreme weather conditions last year, we would have seen a continued plateauing of air quality levels. We’ve made progress in our efforts to achieve better air quality and a high quality of life with our Bus Low Emission Zone and other measures in recent years, but we need to take an even bigger leap forward with our Zero Emission Zone to restrict polluting vehicles in the city centre, temporary bus gates, and Connecting Oxford proposals to reduce car use.”

Hayes also asked for action from university students: “Reducing the numbers of vehicles on our roads (particularly those which are fossil fuel vehicles) and creating segregated cycle routes will be challenging and may be met with opposition. This City Council needs the support of student citizens of the city, so I encourage all who care about cleaner air, action to tackle climate breakdown, and social and economic justice, to be vocal with their Colleges and the University itself, calling on both to vocally and fully support the Council. I would also urge students to be vocal in contacting their city and county councillors directly and sharing support on social media That way we can see the full weight of support for action and help to truly achieve the cleanest possible air and climate for Oxford.”

Image credit to Tejvan Pettinger.