A version of this article was published in Prospect magazine’s supplement for July 2019: ‘Cleaning the Air: How to tackle air pollution and grow the green economy.’
In May, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and striking school-children arrived on parliament’s doorstep to demand that urgent action is taken to lower emissions and prevent irreversible damage to our planet. They were adding to the voices of ambitious local government organised by the European Covenant of Mayors and UK 100 who have been calling national governments to reduce emissions, especially in urban areas that are exceeding air pollution limits set by the World Health organisation.
If the government wants to show that it is taking our environmental crisis seriously curbing air pollution would be a good place to start. A new study by the European Heart Journal doubled previous estimates of annual deaths attributable to Air Pollution from 4.5 to 8.8 million. This makes unclean air the biggest preventable cause of death globally, greater even than smoking which causes 7.2 million deaths per year.
The EHJ’s findings are the latest in a series of studies which paint an increasingly alarming picture concerning the impact of air pollution upon public health. A 2018 study by the BMJ linked exposure to dirty air with the development of dementia and cognitive defects. A further study found the first evidence that particulates can pass through a pregnant mother’s lungs and lodge in their placenta, harming unborn children. The Lancet has just published data estimating that 4 million new paediatric asthma cases could be attributable to NO2 pollution worldwide.
While the media tends to point the finger at developing economies such as China and India the problem of toxic air is global. A recent study by King’s College London and Imperial College found that poor air quality led to around 4,000 hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions between 2014-2016 in London alone. A quarter of those admissions were of children under the age of 14 who are more vulnerable to the impact of polluted air. In adults it is estimated that air pollution is responsible for almost two and a half thousand cases of lung cancer annually in the UK.
Government negligence on this issue seems particularly callous given that exposure to unclean air is also linked to socio-economic factors; property prices tend to fall closer to heavily trafficked areas meaning that less-well-off families are disproportionately exposed to toxic air.
Take the case of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah from Lewisham who died from acute respiratory failure and asthma in 2013. An inquest into her death found a ‘striking association’ between past hospitalisations and spikes in levels of nitrogen dioxide (N02) and PM10s. It is believed her condition was exacerbated by walking to school along London’s congested South Circular Road.
At last week’s meeting with Greta Thunberg environment secretary Michael Gove promised to have ‘woken up’ to the scale of the climate challenge. Unfortunately, the government is good at making the right noises, but bad at translating words into action when it comes to environmental policy. Current targets on air pollution fall woefully short of what is needed to protect public health. While Norway plans to ban all new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles (the main culprits for poor urban air quality) by 2025, and India by 2030, the UK is lagging behind with a target of 2040.
Meanwhile, we are all suffering the effects of exposure to toxic air in our homes, places of work and at school. Not only can outdoor air pollution infiltrate buildings through ventilation systems, open doors and windows, but there are numerous sources of indoor pollutants. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogenic, is used as a flame retardant in furniture. It can be inhaled, particularly when furniture is new, and pass into the bloodstream through contact with formaldehyde-treated furnishings.
The situation is only going to worsen if the UK leaves the EU as we will lose access to the legal infrastructure of the ECJ which currently holds ministers to account when environmental standards are not met. The government’s proposed environment bill promises that an environmental watchdog will be established post-Brexit. However, the new agency will lack legislative powers and the Draft Bill excluded climate change and indoor air pollution from its remit.
That’s why my Clean Air Bill requires the UK to keep our environmental standards in line with those set by the EU. The EU commission are currently reviewing the Ambient Air Quality Directive and are likely to lower the legal limit of PM2.5 particulates from 25 µg/m3 to the WHO recommended level of 10. With Brexit on the horizon the UK will likely be left behind: the government’s current target of halving the number of people exposed to levels above the WHO limit by 2030 is unambitious and is not legally enforceable.
The bill also mandates the Secretary of State to make proposals for a diesel scrappage scheme which will incentivise people to switch from harmful, PM2.5 emitting, diesel vehicles to cleaner forms of transport.
A global crisis requires global solutions. Urgent multilateral action is needed to set and meet meaningful targets on Air Quality and develop cleaner fuel alternatives to power vehicles. Greta Thunberg and all the world’s children deserve to breathe clean air and we have a collective duty to provide it.