The All Party Parliamentary group (APPG) on Air Pollution brought together MPs with experts from the Committee on Climate Change, the DEFRA air quality review group and Asthma U.K, for an illuminating discussion on the relationships between air pollution, climate change and public health.
Geraint Davies, Chair of the APPG and Labour and Cooperative MP for Swansea West, began the event by emphasising the human cost of poor air quality, raising the example of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old child who died from the health impacts of air pollution. Geraint brought to our attention the recently published coroner’s ‘Report to Prevent Further Deaths’, which concluded that air pollution was the main cause of Ella’s death, and recommended that the government introduce legally binding air pollution targets based on World Health Organisation (WHO) standards on safe levels of pollutants.
‘There was no dispute at the inquest that atmospheric air pollution is the cause of many thousand premature deaths every year in the UK. Delay in reducing the levels of atmospheric air pollution is the cause of avoidable deaths.’ [Coroner’s report]
Geraint Davies called for putting WHO standards for PM2.5 on the face of the Environment Bill, which will go to the Lords on 7 June 2021 following the second day of Report Stage in the Commons this week. Geraint also suggested that all government departments should have a requirement to address air pollution, as action needs to be taken on planning and neighbourhoods within local government, on transport’s high contribution to emissions and on public awareness of the health impacts of air pollution. He depicted the public health emergency posed by air pollution, with 64,000 people dying prematurely due primarily to air pollution each year, and with poor air quality contributing to the development of dementia and lung conditions, alongside stunting lung growth in unborn babies and children.
David Joffe, Head of Carbon Budgets at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) welcomed the news that the government agreed to the CCC’s sixth carbon budget, requiring the U.K to reduce its emissions by 78 percent from levels in 1990 by 2035. He argued that both main mechanisms for achieving these reductions – reducing demand for carbon intensive activities and improving resource and energy efficiency, will hugely reduce the quantity of pollutants in the air that we all breathe.
Professor Claire Reeves, an atmospheric scientist and a member of the Defra Air Quality Review Group, spoke about a report which the group produced on the likely impacts of the CCC’s Net Zero pathway on future air quality. They examined the likely impacts of each action proposed by the CCC in terms of different pollutants, and found that significantly improved air quality would result from virtually all actions. One example that Claire examined was the impacts of hydrogen use. She explained that hydrogen produced through low-carbon powered electrolysis of water results in low emissions, whereas hydrogen produced via other methods can result in methane emissions. If hydrogen is used in combination with fuel cells, emissions are very low, but burning hydrogen in boilers or engines would produce similar levels of emissions of nitrogen oxides, which harm human health, as current fossil fuel combustion does.
‘The direct combustion of hydrogen in domestic gas boilers or in engines would likely lead to similar NOx emissions to current fossil fuel combustion’
Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma U.K and British Lung Foundation, stressed the need to reduce the number of fossil fuel powered vehicles to improve air quality. She emphasised the importance of encouraging and enabling people to use forms of active and public transport rather than cars, as we build back better from the pandemic. She spoke powerfully about how high levels of air pollution across the country is trapping people with lung conditions in their homes, as air pollution outdoors makes them struggle to breathe normally. Sarah argued that Public Health England should be actively raising awareness about this public health emergency, similarly to how they created public awareness of the adverse health impacts of tobacco, leading to government legislation to tackle this issue.
‘80 percent of people with a lung condition said that air pollution affects their health and wellbeing’
Jason Torrance, Assistant Chief Executive at UK100, spoke about how local authorities have been implementing clean air zones across the U.K, most notably the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London, which has been proven to cut levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide by a third. Jason shared insights gained by UK100 on policy areas that need government action and leadership, to enable local authorities to significantly reduce air pollution in their communities:
- Making WHO standards on air quality into enforceable legal limits.
- Providing finance for decarbonising transport and retrofitting homes in local authorities, ensuring that low-income groups are supported in this transition.
- Devolving power to local authorities to enable them implement the changes required to rapidly transition to Net Zero.
- Setting out a national clean air strategy.
Jason further suggested that the government should redirect spending away from programmes like the £27 billion road building programme which will significantly increase emissions, and towards programmes reducing emissions from transport.
A key takeaway from the event was the importance of making WHO standards on air quality into enforceable legal limits, to drive action across government departments on improving our air quality, which the APPG on Air Pollution is campaigning to be included in the Environment Bill.