Sarah Knight, pHD student at the University of York and Data Impact Fellow for the UK Data Service, shares her findings from earlier this year, and our Director, Nancy Hey, places them into the wider policy context.

We are just beginning to understand how the natural and physical environment impacts our quality of life. Recent research has shown that exposure and proximity to natural places, such as green and blue spaces, weather, and biodiversity all impact our overall well-being. But how much value do we put on environmental features relative to other factors that affect our quality of life?

In our recent paper Can clean air make you happy?, Peter Howley and I looked at the issue of air quality, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and asked “how does the NO2 level in your residential neighbourhood impact your subjective wellbeing?” We used data from over 50,000 adults in England between 2002-2014 from Understanding Society and Defra and explored how their life satisfaction and residential NO2 levels changed through time.  

We find that higher NO2 levels are associated with lower life satisfaction levels.  Now, it might not surprise you that poorer air quality is associated with lower levels of wellbeing, given what we know about the impacts of air pollution on health, and that the most deprived neighbourhoods tend to be the most polluted. Previous studies have already shown a negative relationship with air quality and wellbeing, and you can see the full paper for a full discussion.

However, in some of these studies, the link with NO2 and wellbeing partially reflects the fact that areas with higher NO2 tend to have different socio-economic activity and different land-use, which can in turn impact on wellbeing through other routes. To simplify, on average people are happier in areas with lower NO2 partly  because these areas may be more pleasant, or greener, and the people who live there may have a better job, among other things. This study goes further and adds in geographic information, so we can control for all these differences economic, social and environmental conditions across neighbourhoods. The relationship with wellbeing and air quality persists even when controlling for these factors.

Not only that, we find that this relationship is substantive when compared to the effect of other life events, such as marital separation, widowhood or unemployment. For example, the average loss in life satisfaction experienced from an annual average ambient level of 40 µg/m3 which is the legal EU limit (and exceeded in many parts of the UK) would amount to just over half of the effect size of unemployment (relative to being employed), and roughly equivalent to the effect size of marital separation and widowhood (relative to being single).  


Centre insight: What’s the bigger picture?

Of course changes in air quality don’t happen in isolation. We know that some of the most important factors influencing our wellbeing include meeting basic needs, social connections, employment. And we know that NO2 emitting industries provide jobs; we use NO2 emitting vehicles to get to work, connect with friends and family and take part in cultural activities. The impact on wellbeing of exceeding the current air quality limit is significant, but this analysis shows it is half of the wellbeing impact of being employed.

We can look elsewhere, for example at noise pollution from potential airport expansion. The quality of life assessment showed with confidence that aircraft noise is bad for subjective wellbeing. However, there was no significant effect of airport proximity on subjective wellbeing – assumed because the negative noise impacts were offset by the employment opportunities, improved transport infrastructure.

In comparison, this study shows that, even when controlling for these factors, air quality has a negative effect. As with the noise assessment above, we still need to have caution – it may be that the negative air quality impacts fall disproportionately to different individuals from those who benefit from employment or other opportunities. Or to the same individuals, which may balance out. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing study of the drivers of wellbeing inequalities threw up an inconclusive finding in the model for England, showing that higher levels of anthropogenic air pollution* are significantly associated with lower inequality in life satisfaction. This study controlled for rurality, so this finding is not just reflecting an urban effect. Could this relate to the other important factors, including access to a job and contact with others? The confidence in this finding is very low so understanding this finding requires more research.

And when we are thinking about policy choices, it is not just the wellbeing which matters, but also the cost.

What does this all mean?

It does not have to be a choice of employment or lower emissions. There are ways we can design towns and policies which mean we can meet our basic needs, employment and social connections and at the same time, avoid reductions in wellbeing through other avenues. For example, we  know from UWE’s recent work on commuting and wellbeing that, when everything else remains the same, active forms of transport – associated with no emissions – are linked with higher wellbeing.

What this study tells us is that the wellbeing impacts of air quality should not be overlooked. There may be some trade-offs which have to be carefully considered, but also some choices which can avoid negative impacts. Are there better ways of meeting these ‘basic needs’ which don’t reduce our wellbeing?


Ambrey, C.L., Fleming, C.M. & Chan, A.Y.C. (2014) Estimating the cost of air pollution in South East Queensland: An application of the life satisfaction non-market valuation approach. Ecological Economics, 97, 172–181.

Ferreira, S., Akay, A., Brereton, F., Cuñado, J., Martinsson, P., Moro, M. & Ningal, T.F. (2013) Life satisfaction and air quality in Europe. Ecological Economics, 88, 1–10.

Ferreira, S. & Moro, M. (2010) On the use of subjective well-being data for environmental valuation. Environmental and Resource Economics, 46, 249–273

Levinson, A. (2012) Valuing public goods using happiness data: The case of air quality. Journal of Public Economics, 96, 869–880.

Mackerron, G. & Mourato, S. (2008) Life satisfaction and air quality in London. Ecological Economics, 68, 1441–1453.

Welsch, H. (2002) Preferences over prosperity and pollution: Environmental valuation based on happiness surveys. Kyklos, 55, 473–494.

Welsch, H. (2007) Environmental welfare analysis: A life satisfaction approach. Ecological Economics, 62, 544–551

*Anthropogenic pollution covers all human-made sources of PM2.5, which includes emissions from vehicles, industrial emissions, the use of non-smokeless fuels for heating and bonfires