Effects of net zero policies and climate change on air quality

This policy briefing explores the interaction between climate change and air quality and outlines policy priorities for the climate and clean air.

Climate change and air pollution are related issues that merit co-ordinated action. Climate change presents a demonstrable and rapidly growing threat to humanity and nature, while air pollution is estimated to account for around 7 million premature deaths per year globally and more than 28,000 per year in the UK.

Our report on effects of net zero policies and climate change on air quality sets out how the changing climate, and the net zero measures adopted to limit further warming, can affect air quality. It provides scientific evidence to support the design of policies that maximise the benefits for air quality at the same time as supporting progress towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

The report (PDF) and the related summary (PDF) present policies with clear co-benefits for air quality and climate change, including:

  • the continued shift away from fossil fuel-powered transport and energy production towards walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicles leading to lower nitrogen dioxide emissions and particulates
  • changes in red meat consumption and farming practices which could reduce ammonia pollution, from livestock and fertiliser, and methane, a potent greenhouse gas which drives the formation of harmful ozone
  • conservation and restoration of ecosystems such as peatlands which lock away carbon dioxide, provide ecosystem benefits, and limit future warming-related emissions

The report also identifies possible mitigation measures that could be considered alongside net zero measures to limit negative effects on air quality, including: 

  • using regenerative braking or automation in electric vehicles to reduce the harmful particulates produced by brake and tyre wear
  • technologies to remove particulates emitted through biomass power stations, or volatile chemicals that may be used in carbon capture and storage
  • emissions control measures if hydrogen or biomass boilers become widely adopted, to reduce local impacts of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions
  • using ‘low emitting plant species’ - such as beech and lime - in large-scale tree planting and urban environments, or biofuel crops which capture carbon dioxide but limit the release of volatile compounds that can form ozone and other pollutants

While net-zero policies to tackle climate change will accelerate current progress towards clean air in the UK, effects of poor air quality on human health will likely remain, particularly due to particulate matter where there is currently no ‘safe’ lower limit. 

Explore more of the Royal Society’s key work on climate change