Extension of the UK Air Quality Classification Scheme: Scoping of Options
February 2006

Background to research

In recent years, air quality has become an increasingly important issue at local, national and European Union levels of environmental policy. This has primarily occurred as a result of increasingly focused efforts to reduce the adverse impacts of air quality on human health.

However, in addition to considering human health outcomes relating to air quality and exposure at a national scale with which the existing headline indicator is largely concerned, the UK environment Agencies also have mandates in other areas i.e. to protect the environment which includes ecosystems, and civil amenities. The aim of this study was therefore to provide an initial scoping investigation for extending the UK’s existing air quality classification scheme in two main respects. The first was to assess the potential for extending the scheme such that it also addresses the impacts of air quality on the other issues covered by the mandate of the UK environment Agencies (i.e. ecosystems and civil amenities). Such an extension of the existing scheme to integrate ecosystem, amenity and other human health measures would be a new adaptation/application to the management and reporting of air quality. The second aspect of the work was to assess the utility of extending the existing national-based scheme for use by local and regional bodies (e.g. Devolved Administrations).

Objectives of research

The objective of this scoping study has been to investigate the potential for extension of the UK’s air quality classification scheme.  Specifically, the study has consulted with stakeholders to investigate the perceived need and feasibility of extending the current classification scheme
a) to include parameters that also provide information on the impacts of air quality on the ecosystem and amenities; and b) so that it is more suitable for use by local and regional bodies.

Key findings and recommendations

A stakeholder consultation exercise was initially performed to clarify the perceived need for, and requirements of, any extended air quality classification scheme. All stakeholders contacted expressed the preference to extend the existing indicator classification of air quality to some degree to include additional parameters that reflect the various other impacts of air quality. Many saw the provision of a parameter for eco-system impacts of air quality as a priority.

The feedback received from the consultation exercise provided a clear justification for proposing an extension to the current air quality classification scheme.  Proposed options for extending the present air quality classification scheme were developed:
  1. Three separate classification schemes for each of the air quality issues human health, eco-systems and amenities;
  2. An overall classification framework that provides a single classification of air quality based on three underlying classification schemes (human health, eco-systems and amenities).
The majority of stakeholders questioned were in favour of keeping the air pollution issues entirely separate i.e. option 1. A main concern was that the current classification scheme (i.e. the human-health based system) should not be confused or diluted by the incorporation of other issues into it. In contrast a benefit of the proposed option 2 is that the existing classification system would be retained but as input to a system that would provide a single overall classification of air quality impacts that may help present a single message concerning air quality to the public.

This scoping study has also identified several potential additional classification system parameters for human health, ecosystems and amenities. The potential options for air quality classification parameters were discussed at a workshop held in late June 2005 and many of the various comments and viewpoints received have been incorporated into this report where applicable. Reflecting the feedback received during the study, it is recommended that the existing air quality classification system, which is primarily concerned with short-term human health impacts, is maintained in any new extended classification system. In terms of the additional proposed classification systems, an emphasis has been made throughout that they should be both as operationally robust as possible and should meet the aim of being able to measure and communicate progress in improving air quality. This should therefore ultimately help reduce exposure to humans and eco-systems, and reduce air quality-related impacts on amenities. It should also help government bodies track their progress and performance in improving and maintaining the quality of air for which they are responsible. A number of specific recommendations pertaining to the proposed potential additional classification systems have been made. These relate to, for example, suggested improvements in data acquisition and classification methodologies.

A key message received from the stakeholders consulted during this work is that it is felt for reasons of multi-causality etc, that there remains a general difficulty in quantifying the specific adverse impacts on human health that can be specifically ascribed to poor air quality. For this reason, no measure of actual human-health impacts caused by poor air quality per se has been suggested, rather the proposed potential classification parameters for human health focus more upon optimising air quality to reduce exposure i.e. optimising the physical environment. From this, it is assumed the reduction in exposure will flow through to improvements in human health (but improvements which are not themselves easily quantifiable for the purposes of an air quality classification system).  

Based on the feedback concerning future priorities received from both the stakeholder questionnaire and project workshop, it is recommended that given future resources for such work, tasks should in the first instance focus on further development and refinement of an eco-system classification system.

Key words: air-quality, amenity, classification, eco-system, environment, health, indicators.

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, in electronic format on CDRom at 20.00 + VAT or hard copy at 25.00, less 20% to FWR members.

N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website