Improving air quality in urban spaces


The postal sector is significant in its role as a contributor to urban air quality issues. Simultaneously, operators must meet the needs of ever-growing e-commerce demand, which spiked significantly in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and is set to remain higher in the long term. Levels of air pollution in cities can sometimes reach toxic levels, hence a rapidly changing regulatory environment. In this climate, it is therefore crucial that we address our contribution to healthy urban spaces.

‘Emissions to air’ in the context of our programme refers to NOX, SOX, and particulate matter, and excludes carbon dioxide. ‘Air quality’ and ‘air pollution’ refer to the impact of these emissions specifically. By addressing air quality separately to climate change and resource efficiency, we are emphasising the consequences of our operations on human health, as well as on the environment. 

Through measuring performance in this area, IPC members are actively contributing to the aims of UN SDG 11 – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. In an internal IPC survey in 2018, SMMS participants identified target 11.6, ‘reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management’, as a priority for the postal sector. Given the importance of these issues to our industry, we have separated out air quality from waste management, which is addressed in the Circular Economy Focus Area.


Emerging trends

This is an area of intense innovation, given the critical levels of air pollution in some of our cities, and the ever pressing need to improve efficiencies in last mile delivery. 

  • Lower emissions vehicles – one of the most popular and obvious solutions is continued investment in alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs). The SMMS group operates an impressive fleet of AFVs, and the expected 29% growth in the global electric vehicle market within the next five years will continue to play a crucial role in improving urban air quality. Read more about it in the Resource Efficiency section. 
  • Incentivisation of cycling and walking – a range of initiatives and investments such as Cycle to Work schemes and safety awareness trainings has allowed our participants to demonstrate their commitment to encouraging cycling and walking both in their operations and in their employees’ commute.
  • City hubs – often tested on a small scale first, such as in a single neighbourhood, city hubs operate as more efficient urban delivery services. Lower emissions vehicles are often used as part of these initiatives, and we expect to see their adoption more widely in years to come. 
  • Collaboration – sharing space and time will be crucial to reducing the impact on urban air quality while meeting consumer needs. This will in many cities require public-private sector partnership. However, given this is such a fast-moving issue, it is envisaged that cities will also be able to learn from each other, as solutions are developed. 
  • Impact of COVID-19 – important to note the positive impact COVID had to air quality. As cities stopped during its peak in the spring of 2020 there were significant improvements in air quality in major cities across the globe. This has caused a major focus on the need to implement longer term initiatives to achieve more sustained improvements. 



*2019 Overall Score was originally reported as 35.8%. This was restated in 2021 to 36.0%. Please see Restatements section for further details. 

  • The group scored 49.2% in the Air Quality in the Sustainability Management Proficiency (SMP) questionnaire. Air Quality was the most improved Focus Area out of the seven, with the overall score increasing by more than 13 percentage points from 2019 (compared to an average improvement of nine percentage points).
  • Participants scored best in questions related to Measurement and Evaluation. This reflects posts’ efforts to improve data quality and monitor their rate of progression against KPIs, which is key to reducing negative impacts .
  • Lowest scoring was the Disclosure and Reporting pillar of this Focus Area in the SMP questionnaire. As this is the second year of reporting in this area under the SMMS programme, we are able to observe a significant increase of more than 13 percentage points this pillar from 2019. The group score improved the most in Strategy and Policy , and also increased by more than twelve points in Embedding, demonstrating the group’s commitment to developing robust governance and management of Air Quality within their organisations. We expect stronger disclosure to follow as these internal systems develop.  
  • Quantitative metrics are not reported for Air Quality this year, however some SMMS participants do report individually on their organisation’s quality performance as part of their corporate reporting. As we improve the coverage of data collection, we expect to report on this area collectively in future years. 

Highlights of the group’s performance in 2020 include:

  • All 20 posts place a strategic focus on the use of alternative fuel vehicles as part of their efforts to improve Air Quality 
  • 10 posts have identified and assessed the risks, and 11 the opportunities, relating to air quality and/or air pollution prevention 
  • 14 posts operate smart city solutions, or initiatives involving cooperation and development with other stakeholders to improve urban air quality
  • 9 participants have a policy in place related to air quality and/or pollution that includes a commitment to performance improvement. 

IPC encourages posts to develop management of their contribution to air quality, such as participating in initiatives with government and NGOs that aim to improve air quality, particularly in urban areas, and  developing policies that include explicit frameworks for achieving objectives, in line with global best practice