Air quality: key behaviours report

From: Scottish Government
Published: Thu Feb 08 2024

Report commissioned to identify key public behaviours that have the most impact on improving air quality, and to support future public engagement work. The report focuses on the actions households and the general public can take to support improving outdoor air quality.



Poor air quality is recognised to be a major threat to public health. It is responsible for premature death, increased prevalence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as other health impacts such as increased risk of poor mental health and adverse pregnancy outcomes (Annesi-Maesano, 2017; Health and Environment Working Group, 2019; Roberts et al., 2023). Beyond the serious health impacts that result in deaths and hospitalizations from respiratory and other health impacts of air pollution, there is an underestimation of the social and economic impacts of air pollution on labour productivity and human capital resulting from lower-level health impacts (Zivin & Neidell, 2018).

In 2021, the Scottish Government launched the Cleaner Air for Scotland 2 (CAFS2) air quality strategy. The Strategy provides a framework for air quality improvement that brings together relevant policy areas including transport, climate change, planning, health and energy. CAFS2 recognises that whilst there have been significant improvements in air quality over the last 50 years, progress on reducing pollutant emissions is slowing. There may be opportunity for interventions focused on behaviour change to support future improvements in air quality. Such interventions should be sensitive to the complex factors influencing behaviours impacting on air quality.

To support the development of CAFS2 a literature review assessing public attitudes and behaviour relating to air pollution was commissioned by the Scottish Government. The review offered insights from the literature on promising approaches to public engagement, as well as identifying existing examples of air quality public engagement in Scotland (Barnes et al., 2020). Whilst identifying components of behaviour change theory of relevance to promoting behaviours supporting air quality improvements, the objectives of the review did not include an assessment of the specific behaviours which should be targeted through public engagement.

A recent baseline survey of the Scottish population, conducted to support monitoring of CAFS2, highlighted that public concern about air pollution is high - 79% report concern (BMG Research, 2023). Whilst 42% of the public believe they can do things to make their daily activities less harmful to air quality, compared to 33% who do not, respondents tended to perceive that it is primarily the private sector and government that can make a significant impact on improving air quality (BMG Research, 2023). This is also reflected in the priority given to different options for addressing air quality in Scotland, with only 56% prioritising actions to address emissions from private vehicle use, compared to 62% prioritising emissions from commercial vehicles and buses and 69% prioritising emissions from industry (BMG Research, 2023).

Aim and objectives

The aim of this report is to provide evidence on the key behaviours that impact on air quality to inform future public engagement on the issue. The report focuses on the actions of households and the general public (rather than business and industry), and on behaviours impacting on outdoor (rather than indoor) air quality. In line with the focus on households and the public, the pollutants of key interest for the report are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), although other pollutants subject to air quality standards and objectives may also be relevant.

The objectives of the research were to:

  • Undertake an evidence review, building on the 2020 review, with a particular focus on identifying behaviours which have the most impact on improving air quality, together with associated motivations and barriers; and
  • Assess these behaviours within a relevant model or framework to provide a direction for policy consideration of next steps on public engagement.

The following sections outline the approach adopted for the review and the analytical framework used as a lens for assessing the key behaviours and highlighting opportunities for future intervention.

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Company: Scottish Government

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