Air Pollution


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 atmosphere.

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 ecosystems.

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 and obligations.


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 biodiversity policies.


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 bodies.

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 publications.