Friends of the Earth Scotland has revealed that 2020 will be the first year that Scotland doesn’t record illegal levels of air pollution. The huge changes to public life due to Covid-19 included a massive drop in car journeys from March 2020.

Government instructions to stay at home, and closure of schools and offices saw traffic plummet. Analysis of the data has shown steep drops in pollution, particularly on commuter roads into the biggest cities.

Campaigners say this shows the clear link between car journeys and pollution levels, and that Scottish Government needs to work with councils to ensure these reductions can be maintained sustainably.

The air quality data, and traffic figures, show that the improvements in air quality due to Covid-19 restrictions were short-lived and pollution soon returned to high, pre-pandemic levels. However the drop in the Spring was sufficient to bring the annual average down considerably on 2019 levels.

Official air pollution data for 2020 was analysed, looking at two toxic pollutants which are primarily produced by transport. Legal air quality standards, which came into force in 2010 and have been breached every year, have now been met for the first time in Scotland.

Streets such as Hope Street in Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Nicolson Street have seen some of the biggest drops in pollution, as many car commuters worked from home for parts of 2020.

Most polluted streets for Nitrogen Dioxide

The European Ambient Air Quality Directive set a limit for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre. The deadline for this limit to have been met was 2010.
Location / NO2 Nitrogen Dioxide Annual mean (µg/m3)

Glasgow Hope Street 35.87
Dundee Lochee Road 31.09
Perth Atholl Street 27.62
Dundee Seagate 27.60
Inverness Academy Street 26.99
Edinburgh Nicolson Street 26.50
Falkirk West Bridge Street 25.96
Edinburgh St John’s Road 25.77
Glasgow Dumbarton Road 25.29
Aberdeen Wellington Road 24.99

Most polluted streets for fine particles (PM10)

The Scottish annual statutory standard for particulate matter (PM10) is 18 micrograms per cubic metre. The deadline for this standard to have been met was 31st December 2010.

Location PM10 annual mean (µg/m3)

Edinburgh Salamander St 15.93
Falkirk Main St Bainsford 12.20
North Ayrshire Irvine High St 11.35
Aberdeen Wellington Road 11.29
Fife Cupar 11.28
Edinburgh Queensferry Road 11.16
Aberdeen Anderson Dr 11.12
Glasgow Byres Road 10.84
Aberdeen King Street 10.74
West Lothian Broxburn 10.58

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Air Pollution Campaigner Gavin Thomson said:

“It’s a huge pity that it took a deadly pandemic to bring our air quality within legal limits. Scotland’s car-choked transport system was brought to a halt in Spring, and this is why our annual averages of pollution are much lower than previous years. Any improvements in air quality in Scotland have been short-lived with traffic quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“We need to remember that pollution damages our health through long-term exposure, such as living near a main road throughout your childhood. The reduced pollution for a couple of months during the strictest lockdown is unlikely to have many long-term health benefits.

“The health links between air pollution and Covid-19 should push us to redouble our efforts to clean up our air and protect public health. The Scottish Government’s recently published ‘Cleaner Air for Scotland’ strategy contains very few ideas for reducing polluting traffic and cleaning up our transport system. The Government and Councils must seize this moment to rethink how we plan our towns and cities, and how we move around.

“Temporary improvements in air quality arrived at an enormous cost to our communities and societies. There was no intention or concerted political action to reduce emissions, which is why the falls were not maintained when restrictions eased. We need a just and green recovery, including investment in our public transport and more options for safe walking and cycling, to improve the air we breathe permanently.”


Friends of the Earth Scotland analysed data from the Automatic Monitoring Stations around Scotland.

Data have been ratified from January 2020 – September 2020. Data with 70% data capture and over has been included. The monitors were a combination of roadside and kerbside monitors. It should be noted that at different sites, exposure levels to the general public will be different.

The full data is available here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Nhan5XZXohU-Ssz106xitsoywNvEU1LowwIpY7g-fqE

The European Ambient Air Quality Directive set a limit for NO2 annual average of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre. The deadline for compliance was 1 January 2010.
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578986/IPOL_STU(2016)578986_EN.pdf (P.19)

The Scottish annual statutory standard for PM10 is 18 micrograms per cubic metre. The deadline for this standard to have been met was 31st December 2010

Transport Scotland analyses national transport levels. Key points from 2020 national traffic data are:

  • Huge reduction in car travel began in late March, but started ticking back up from mid May. 6 weeks of greatly reduced car travel slashed annual average levels of pollution.
  • Car travel was 2 to 3 times higher in Autumn than it was in the Spring
  • Car travel from July through to mid November was back up at 2019 levels

Full weekly figures are available via:

The roll-out of Low Emission Zones in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee and Aberdeen has been delayed to 2022 despite the 2017 Programme for Government promise to introduce them in 4 cities by the end of 2020. https://foe.scot/press-release/low-emission-zone-delay-shows-scottish-government-not-serious-about-air-pollution-action/

Free to use, print quality photos can be downloaded from the Friends of the Earth Scotland Flickr account. They include images of spokespeople, protests and featured streets

The Scottish Government’s ‘Spaces for People’ scheme distributed £30m to councils in Scotland for temporary road space re-allocation to ease social distancing https://www.transport.gov.scot/news/success-for-30-million-pop-up-infrastructure-initiative/

Transport is Scotland’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/statistics/2019/06/scottish-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017/documents/scottish-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017/scottish-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017/govscot%3Adocument/scottish-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017.pdf P.13

The Scottish Government’s ‘Cleaner Air for Scotland’ strategy is currently out for public consultation: https://consult.gov.scot/environmental-quality/cleaner-air-for-scotland-2/

Health impacts of air pollution:
Friends of the Earth Scotland estimate that 2500 people die early each year from air pollution in Scotland alone:

Air pollution, at levels seen on Scottish streets, has been linked with:
– Respiratory illness including asthma and COPD Heart attacks and strokes
– Low birthweight and delayed development in babies whose mothers have been exposed
– Poor lung development in children
– Dementia

Children, the elderly, people with pre-existing health conditions, and sick are disproportionately affected by air pollution. (for more, see the Royal College of Physicians’ 2016 report, “Every Breath we Take: The lifelong impact of air pollution”:

The study, ‘COVID-19 PM2.5 A national study on long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States’. concludes that “an increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate”. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is poisonous gas caused by burning of fossil fuels in car engines. Exposure to NO2 is known to be linked to increased mortality and respiratory problems. Nitrogen dioxide inflames the lining of the lung and reduces immunity to lung infections such as bronchitis.

Particulate Matter are tiny, often invisible particles in the air. Particles originating from road traffic include soot from engines, small bits of metal and rubber from engine wear and braking as well as dust from road surfaces. They can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs and damage our health. The World Health Organisation advises that there is no safe level of exposure to Particulate Matter

Friends of the Earth Scotland is:
* Scotland’s leading environmental campaigning organisation
* An independent Scottish charity with a network of thousands of supporters and active local groups across Scotland
* Part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 75 national member groups, and 5,000 local activist groups.