Air Quality: How does air pollution relate to climate change?

Following the Great Smog of 1952 the fight against burning fossil fuels in London was about air quality. Today that fight for clean air is shared with the war against climate change.

Air pollution and climate change go hand in hand since the pollutants that are bad for our health are also bad for the environment. And steps taken to reduce air pollution will often be the same steps taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse Gases

The main causes of pollution include transport, heating and industrial processes amongst others. They release various gases into the air, several of which we call greenhouse gases. These gases include carbon dioxide, methane, ground level ozone and CFCs.

But why are they called “Greenhouse” gases?

The gases work rather like a greenhouse because they trap the heat from the sun in the atmosphere around the earth. We want some greenhouse effect otherwise earth would be much cooler. But by burning fossil fuels increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases are causing more heat to be trapped, hence why the earth is warming up.

Global warming leads to many problems, such as the melting of the polar ice caps which in turn can impact sea levels. It can also lead to more extreme weather such as storms, floods and heat, as well as droughts, fires, famine and health problems.

The impact of other types of air pollution

Air pollution from particles (from transport for example) can also travel round the world and end up in the polar regions. It darkens the snow and ice making the surfaces less reflective so they reflect less sun and heat back out of the atmosphere. This leads to further warming.

Reducing air pollution can reduce climate change

If there is air pollution then this is likely contributing to climate change by altering the makeup of the atmosphere. Therefore reducing air pollution simultaneously leads to a reduction in global warming.

Benefits of reducing air pollution

Studies have found that worldwide cutting ground level pollution could prevent 2.4 million early deaths each year by 2030 as well as reducing the amount of atmospheric warming expected to occur in the next few decades.

To protect yourself from poor air quality you can stay up to date with the latest Daily Air Quality Index

Air Quality Index Example Credit: ITV Weather - with data from DEFRA and Met Office

 It uses a colour coded scale of 1 to 10.

Low air pollution is between 1 and 3, Moderate between 4 and 6, High is between 7 and 9, and Very High is 10 on the scale 

Air pollution levels. Credit: ITV Weather, DEFRA and Met Office
  • 1-3: Enjoy your usual outdoor activities

  • 4-6: At risk individuals consider reducing physical activity outdoors

  • 7-9: Anyone experiencing discomfort should reduce physical activity

  • 10: Everyone should avoid or reduce physical activity

You can find more information on air quality on the CleanAirHub