Air pollution is the next business challenge

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Air pollution can and does negatively affect everyone’s health. But, it disproportionately impacts those who live in less affluent areas, broadening health inequalities across the UK.

According to Public Health England (now the UK Health Security Agency and Office for Health Improvement and Disparities), long-term exposure to air pollution reduces life expectancy and contributes to an annual equivalent of 28,000 to 36,000 deaths, resulting from increasing mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, and lung cancer.

This impact on human health has grave implications for our society and businesses, both now and in the future. 

Air pollutants can be naturally occurring, such as the recent Saharan dust cloud that swept across the UK earlier this year. However, most importantly, harmful air pollutants arise from constant daily activities, mainly transportation and the burning of fossils fuels for electricity and heating.

Désirée Abrahams is Senior programme manager at Global Action Plan

Yet, while we as individuals contribute to the UK’s overall emissions in our daily interactions, businesses, through their direct operations and value chain, generate higher levels of harmful pollutants, and as a result, have a greater responsibility to act.

So, what can businesses do to tackle air pollution?

A wide variety of industries contribute to the overall UK emissions for a number of pollutants, such as particulate matter, ammonia and volatile organic compounds.

In addition, all industries, through their use of road transportation, contribute to high levels of nitrogen oxides (NO×).

As producers of polluting emissions, industries have a unique role to adapt and reduce emissions.

Each industry sector should assess which harmful pollutants they generate, how it is generated, including frequency of emission and position in relation to people, especially vulnerable people
Each industry sector should assess which harmful pollutants they generate,  including frequency of emission and position in relation to people, especially vulnerable people. Photograph: iStock

Without understanding the business policies, practices and models that cause or contribute to harmful air pollutants, either directly or indirectly, UK-based industries will fail to carry out an essential business management function – due diligence. 

Each industry sector should assess which harmful pollutants they generate, how it is generated, the quantity emitted, frequency of emission and position in relation to people, especially vulnerable people. For example, that may be residents living close to industrial facilities or along busy roads the business deliveries choose to take. It could be children in nurseries or schools, or older people in nursing homes that may be located near the business.

In addition, responsible companies should consider how their polluting emissions could be affecting their own workforce, through possible indoor pollutants, and externally, through ambient pollution. This falls under an employer’s duty of care to their employee. Once assessed, they should take remedial actions to mitigate any harm caused as they would with any other health and safety issue.

Without such thorough analysis, UK-based businesses will continue to ignore their contribution to air pollution, leaving the NHS to assume the financial burden of treatment. A study by Public Health England (PHE) estimated that between 2017 and 2025, the total cost to the NHS and social care system in England due to particulate matter (PM 2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) will be £1.6 billion.

In 2020, CBI Economics published, Breathing life into the UK economy: Quantifying the economic benefits of cleaner air which makes a compelling argument for governments and business adopting clean air strategies, noting several economic gains if preventative actions are to be adopted. Some key improvements from the report stated are:

  • A reduction of mortality and diseases linked to poor air quality, almost 17,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year
  • With individuals living and working longer, the UK could gain almost 40,000 productive years, which is estimated to provide a £1 billion economic gain in the first year and an even larger benefit in future years
  • The UK could gain an additional three million working days by reducing morbidity associated with poor air quality
  • Due to a reduction in personal illness or that of dependants, as well as a reduction in the number of days workers go to work ill, an improvement in air quality would reduce work absences, with the UK estimated to gain close to £600 million as a result.

Change on the horizon?

In the UK, we wait with bated breath to hear what the government decides at the end of 2022, when it announces the agreed targets for particulate matter (PM 2.5). Currently, the targets are open to public consultation until 27 June. 

Businesses, as an important stakeholder in British society, should consider submitting a response.

For those responsible businesses that want cleaner air for their workers and customers, as well as a business operating environment based on consistency and clarity, expressing interest in the UK government aligning the UK’s air quality targets with those set out by the World Health Organization (WHO) – the WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines 2021 – would be a prudent move.

These global standards on air quality exist to guide governments on developing air quality targets, which if adopted universally by all governments, would foster cleaner air around the world, which ultimately benefits business, especially those UK companies that may have global operations.

That said, responsible UK businesses do not need to wait for the government to agree on air quality targets that put human health at the centre. Those that understand the importance of maintaining a healthy society, which in effect means a healthy customer base and workforce, can start to assess their air pollution footprint and adopt preventative measures, just as they strive to tackle climate change and embark on delivering net zero plans.

To mark Clean Air Day 2021, Désirée Abrahams wrote a White Paper, Air Pollution: the next business challenge. To access it, register at: bit.ly/3MSbJwP

Find out what you can do in your organisation to support Clean Air Day here 

Désirée Abrahams is Senior programme manager at Global Action Plan


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