Opinion

In 2020, our lungs couldn’t catch a break

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Our government urgently needs to step up action on air pollution.


While the pandemic has had a terrible toll on people’s health and wellbeing, any urban-dweller who stepped outside in March and April will remember cleaner air and clearer skies, when levels of many harmful pollutants in the air dropped significantly. But it didn’t last and this prompts the question: why is air that is safe to breathe such an anomaly?

Air pollution is hugely damaging for people’s health and this is now broadly understood. What is less well known is air pollution’s detrimental impact on the economy. According to CBI Economics, dirty air in the UK causes three million working days to be lost every year owing to people getting ill or taking time off to care for sick children. Action on air pollution benefits the bottom line as well as employee health.

But the vast majority of the UK still charts levels of dangerous pollution that breach legal limits – limits that should have been met in 2010.

Three court cases brought by ClientEarth against the UK government have highlighted ministers’ persistent failure to clean up the air in our towns and cities – and forced them to step up their game. And yet central and local government are dragging their feet on the issue.

Dominic Phinn: "The vast majority of the UK still charts levels of dangerous pollution that breach legal limits."

Our authorities know the solutions that are needed to tackle the problem. Take nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, which comes mostly from road transport and in particular diesel vehicles. Clean Air Zones (CAZs) are a good starting point to deal with this type of pollution: they restrict the most polluting vehicles from entering the most polluted parts of towns and cities. It is the measure the government identified as the most effective for meeting legal limits for NO2 in the shortest time possible – and it brings exciting opportunities to reimagine life in our cities.

Local authorities, though, have so far been sluggish with the introduction of these zones and the Covid-19 pandemic led many local authorities’ to stall plans to implement them. This is where government action should come in: they must coordinate the urgent implementation of CAZs where they are needed and offer help and support for people and businesses to switch to cleaner forms of transport.

Many parts of the UK also report levels of particulate matter (PM) – another toxic air pollutant – that, while within current legal limits, are well over the levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

With the forthcoming Environment Bill – the country’s main piece of environmental legislation now that it has left the European Union – the government has a golden opportunity to show its level of ambition.

That’s why it needs to adopt stronger legal limits that drive action to better protect people’s health and make sure that no part of the country exceeds the levels recommended by the WHO. ClientEarth, alongside the WHO itself and other UK health organisations, believes that this must be achieved by 2030 at the very latest.

At a time when air pollution is associated with an increase in Covid-19 deaths, and with the economic rationale for reducing air pollution well proven, our government urgently needs to step up action.

ClientEarth works closely with a range of progressive businesses to encourage more ambition and action from government to help businesses play their role in tackling air pollution in the UK. If you would like to learn more, please get in touch: [email protected]

Dominic Phinn is business engagement co-ordinator at ClientEarth

What impact did lockdown have on air pollution? Read our feature here

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