We can reveal that 2020 will be the first year that Scotland doesn’t record illegal levels of air pollution.

COVID-19 restrictions including Government instructions to stay at home, along with the closure of schools and offices saw traffic plummet.

Transport Scotland national transport data shows that there was a huge reduction in car travel from late March, but started ticking back up from mid May.

These 6-8 weeks of greatly reduced car travel were enough to slash annual average levels of pollution, meaning that no sites breached the legal limits for the first time since their introduction in 2010.

This shows the direct link between car journeys and pollution levels, and the Scottish Government needs to work with councils to ensure these reductions can be maintained sustainably.

Official air pollution data for 2020 was analysed, looking at two toxic pollutants which are primarily produced by transport. 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.

Hope Street Glasgow, Nitrogen Dioxide levels in 2019. Source: www.scottishairquality.scot

Hope Street Glasgow, Nitrogen Dioxide levels in 2020. Source: www.scottishairquality.scot

While people may have enjoyed this brief period of fresher air,  we must remember that pollution damages our health through long-term exposure, such as living near a main road throughout your childhood. So this period of reduced pollution for a couple of months during the strictest lockdown is unlikely to have many long-term health benefits.

Any improvements in air quality in Scotland have been short-lived with traffic quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels. Car travel was 2 to 3 times higher in Autumn than it was in the Spring, from July through to mid November was close to 2019 levels.

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 was criticised by health and environment charities for containing very few ideas for reducing polluting traffic and cleaning up our transport system.

The Scottish Government and Councils must seize this moment to rethink how we plan our towns and cities, and how we move around. 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.


If you’re interested in learning more about getting active on campaigns to improve green transport or tackle air pollution, check out our new Introduction to Campaigning short course beginning in January 2021.  This will help you take your first steps, learn the basic and build skills alongside other people who want to get active.

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Gavin Thomson

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