Humid the air: leafless, yet soft as spring,

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,

She needs not June for beauty’s heightening…

When Matthew Arnold wrote his famous lines about Oxford in 1865 it is unlikely that he would have attributed the reasons for the “humid air” to manmade pollution.

But after being named by the World Health Organization as one of the 12 worst cities for air quality in the UK, the city’s authorities have announced ambitious plans to make Oxford the first “zero-emissions zone” in the world.

London, Glasgow in Scotland and Port Talbot in Wales also made the list of British locations with filthy air.

Leaden skies: Oxford aims to clean up its air act
Image: Pixabay

Cleaning up Oxford’s air

The Oxford authorities said “air pollution appears to have plateaued above the legal limits in some parts of the city”. It added that, despite the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, British local authorities still aimed to meet the EU’s 2020 targets for air quality improvements.

Air quality is determined by the measurement of PM10s, small particulates that come from industrial sources, motor-vehicle emissions, wildfires and the burning of waste.

In October, civic leaders announced a consultation on plans to phase in the use of non-emissions-making vehicles from 2020, with the goal of making Oxford completely emissions free by 2035.

The government has already pledged hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund taxi and general purpose vehicle charging points in the city, and council leaders are seeking further money to fully implement the plan.

The UK cities with the worst air pollution
Image: WHO/World Atlas

The council said delivering its plan “would take air pollution levels in Oxford city centre down to near-background levels. For example in the city center’s most polluted street, George Street, a 74% reduction in toxic nitrogen dioxide levels is expected by 2035.”

Health, wealth and air quality

Petrol and diesel emissions cause illness and premature death, which not only leads to individual misery but affects a nation’s productivity, drives down gross domestic product and affects everyone’s standards of living.

The desire to cut city air pollution is not unique to Britain. The United Nations reckons that the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas will rise from 54% in 2014 to 66% by 2050. As increasingly these will be the places where the most wealth is generated, cities will need to ensure their workers are fit.

Diesel, which produces more particulate matter than standard petrol, is one of the worst offenders. A study of premature deaths in 2013 suggested that if diesel emissions had been the same as those of petrol, there would have been fewer deaths in EU states.


Meanwhile, a study in October in the Lancet found that pollution was the largest cause of disease and premature death in 2015, causing around nine million deaths, or 16% of the world’s total. This, the study said, was three times more than from Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.

About 8% or 50,000 deaths are estimated to be linked to pollution, which puts the UK in 55th place out of the 188 countries measured, behind the US and many European countries.

Paris, Madrid and Athens are among cities that have announced bans on diesel vehicles that will be in force by 2025. Stuttgart is planning to prohibit them from 2018. The UK, meanwhile, has announced a ban on all petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

However, Laurie Laybourn-Langton, senior research fellow specializing in transport for the UK thinktank the Institute for Public Policy research, said even removing all diesel and petrol cars – which cause most air pollution – would still not make cities particulate free. “Tyres and brakes also create particulates,” he says, adding some of these are “so small they can even get into your bloodstream”.

The global ‘arms race’ for clean air

Reducing air pollution has important implications for policy-makers, economies and car manufacturers. A report in the Financial Times in September suggested that, as cities grow, the power of mayors and councillors could come to rival that of central governments as far as transport matters are concerned.

Traditional automakers are aware that they will have to adapt to emissions-reduction policies and to predictions of diminishing car ownership. Companies such as Volvo, Tesla and BMW are racing to develop electric and autonomous vehicles.

Laybourn-Langton said that cities will have to work towards achieving unpolluted air in stages.

Stage one, he says, is to remove diesel and petrol-driven cars; stage two is to put public money into improving public transport; and stage three is to make better use of technology. This latter phase, he says, will involve more car rental and journey planner-type apps, so people can find a car, rent it and unlock it with their phones, or find alternative means of reaching their destination.

Crucial to this will be technology that tracks vehicle use, so people know where cars are and when they will be free. As Laybourn-Langton points out, most vehicles sit idle for 90% of their existence, so this will make better use of the ones we will have.

Greater use of digital messaging communications, such as Skype, may also reduce the need for transport.

Laybourn-Langton adds that the amount of bad publicity around air pollution has galvanized countries around the world into what he calls “an arms race” to reduce toxicity levels.

As Britain heads towards leaving the European Union, he says that if Oxford could become the first zero-emissions city “it would be hugely positive for the UK post-Brexit”.

And if Oxford is less polluted and its streets are quieter by 2035, its inhabitants may once again be able to enjoy the humid air around its dreaming spires in health and tranquility.