Air pollution is a major environmental pressure. Its impact is
felt at a range of scales from local, to regional, to global. Air
pollutants can affect biodiversity and ecosystem services, harm
human health and contribute to climate change.
The past few decades have seen major changes in the area of air
pollution in the UK and Europe, with significant improvements in
air quality. However, the effects of nitrogen deposition and
ground-level ozone on ecosystems are still a concern.
Air pollution has caused widespread changes to sensitive
ecosystems in the UK. Many of the thresholds for protection of
ecosystems are exceeded. In addition, recent emissions cuts have
not led to similar reductions in the concentrations and deposition
of pollutants, partly due to changes to chemical processes in the
There is strong evidence that nitrogen deposition has reduced
the diversity of plant species in semi-natural habitats across the
UK. More positively, cuts in sulphur deposition are prompting
chemical recovery in soils and freshwaters – although
recovering freshwater biological communities do not resemble those
present before damage was done.
Recognising the threat air pollution poses to biodiversity,
critical loads for nutrient nitrogen and acidity are used as an
indicator of pressure on natural systems and species.
Sources and exposure
Farming, transport, energy and industry are all key pollution
sources. The UK-Air website provides details
of emissions and pollutant levels in the UK.
Data and evidence
The 2010 Review of Transboundary Air
Pollution provides an account of emissions, dispersal and
ecosystem impacts of air pollutants in the UK. It provides
authoritative evidence of the effects of air pollution on
In addition, the Air Pollution Information System
(APIS) provides a comprehensive source of information on pollution
and its impact on habitats and species. APIS has been developed by
JNCC, the country conservation agencies, the UK environment
agencies and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It provides site
specific information on deposition and critical loads.
JNCC has also funded a range of research projects, with
partners, that aim to provide evidence of the impacts of air
pollution and to put in place methods to assess impacts. Further
evidence and surveillance needs are being evaluated as part of our
work on the Terrestrial Biodiversity Surveillance Strategy.
Currently our work is focusing on harm done by nitrogen
deposition. The work will collate evidence of impacts at different
scales and assess implications for UK biodiversity policies
Policies and legislation
EU air pollution policy is implemented through a large number of
directives and initiatives that address air pollution issues.
Those most relevant to our work include:
- The EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, which establishes
objectives for air pollution and sets out how they should be met by
- The National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) sets national
emission limits for four key pollutants: sulphur dioxide, oxides of
nitrogen, volatile organic compounds and ammonia.
- The UK is also a signatory to the Gothenburg Protocol of UNECE
Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. It sets
national emission ceilings for the same four pollutants as the
- The UK Air Quality Strategy sets out air quality objectives and
policy options for UK air quality. Mainly concerned with human
health issues, it also includes some limited measures for
- The Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC)
Directive provides an integrated approach to pollution prevention
from industry and farming.
Role of JNCC
JNCC's air pollution work focuses on:
- advising Government, its agencies and other bodies on the
impact air pollution has on biodiversity;
- providing evidence, sometimes through commissioned research,
about air pollution’s impacts on biodiversity;
- promoting the better integration of air pollution and
JNCC works in partnership with the country conservation agencies
through an Inter-agency Air Pollution Group (IAPG).
Much is also done in collaboration with the UK’s environment
agencies, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Defra), and the devolved administrations, as well as research
In addition, the country conservation agencies are statutory
consultees under planning and pollution legislation. In that role
they provide advice on the air pollution impacts of new
installations, roads and other infrastructure.
For more information, see the Air Pollution
Bulletin which provides information on the IAPG's
recent air pollution work, and reports and other