SCOTLAND has failed to meet European targets to curb air pollution, with fumes from road traffic exceeding safe levels in a number of cities, a report by a leading environmental charity has found.
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Provisional roadside monitoring data for 2011 shows levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in parts of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth are all in breach of European Union targets designed to safeguard human health.
The WWF charity called the findings "totally unacceptable" and urged the Scottish Government to take action to improve air quality "rather than simply seek an extension from Europe to delay meeting air quality targets".
Dan Barlow, head of policy at WWF Scotland, said: "It is totally unacceptable Scotland has breached European air pollution targets for the second year in a row. As a result of a complacent approach thousands of people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution in Scotland's major cities.
"Scotland has had plenty of time to take preventative action, so it is shocking we have failed to put in place the measures needed to meet air quality targets and protect human health. This situation is a direct result of the failure of successive governments to produce a sensible strategy that adequately addresses air pollution and climate emissions from road traffic.
"At the same time Scotland is suggesting it may not meet air-quality targets until 2020, government investment and infrastructure plans are set to prioritise road building over public transport improvements and cut funding for walking and cycling. Improving air quality and tackling climate emissions requires a shift in Government transport spending plans to place much more emphasis on sustainable solutions."
Around 2.2 million tonnes of nitrogen dioxide are produced every year in the UK, with traffic fumes contributing around half of the emissions. Other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter produced from transport emissions have been linked with health conditions including respiratory problems.
The Environmental Audit Committee at Westminster has calculated pollution from road traffic leads to an average of six months' lower life expectancy for people living in the UK.
Separate studies have shown the bulk of health-harming pollutants from transport are produced by buses and HGVs. However, action to curb pollution has been slow to take effect.
A long-delayed statutory partnership with the bus industry in Glasgow next year is expected to lead to reduced emissions by preventing older, more polluting vehicles from being used on city centre routes.
Edinburgh also hopes the delayed completion of a tram line in 2014 will help reduce emissions, although studies have shown this will be largely offset by a predicted growth in vehicle use and critics claim it will merely lead to traffic being dispersed on to side roads.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "As announced in the recently published Infrastructure Investment Plan, we have set a vision which ensures our roads are as efficient as possible, complements the work under way to develop low-carbon vehicle technology, promotes active travel choices and encourages a modal shift to public transport."