AARON KIELY says we need to phase out the dirtiest vehicles and clean up the air in our cities if we want our children to be healthy
“BREATHING clean air should be a basic human right. If you want to walk down the street and get a newspaper, you deserve to breathe.” These are the words of Lewisham campaigner RosamundKissi-Debrah.
Words made all the more powerful in the knowledge that Kissi-Debrah lost her young daughter Ella to a severe asthma attack. She set up the Ella Roberta Foundation in Ella’s memory to try to understand why her asthma was so bad. She is now a leading activist working to clean up London’s polluted air.
It’s a fact that people living and working in Lewisham will regularly be exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.
The evidence is also overwhelming that dirty air leads to worsening asthma symptoms, heart disease and even lung cancer. It increases the risk of children growing up with smaller lungs and has been associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia.
Air pollution also exacerbates existing inequalities. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been found to be disproportionately exposed to one of the most dangerous types of air pollution — Particulate Matter. Worryingly, there is no safe level of exposure to this form of pollution.
Evidence shows that pregnant mothers’ exposure to high pollution can lead to babies having low birth weight, premature birth and even organ damage.
Children are also particularly vulnerable to air pollution. Research has shown that some primary school children living in highly polluted urban areas had up to 10 per cent less lung capacity than normal. Thousands of schools across the country are situated in areas of high pollution.
Pollution is also a real story about health and safety for working people. Teachers, taxi drivers and postal service workers are rightly sounding the alarm and campaigning for protection from exposure to cancer-causing diesel fumes.
Friends of the Earth has been working with trade unionists to challenge this, through providing teaching resources for teachers, and air quality monitoring kits for environmental workplace reps. In addition, there is an estimated £20 billion cost to our health service and wider economy because of air pollution and the related health problems. Money spent on this preventable problem could be better used on our NHS, schools and housing.
The toxic gases and harmful particles that many of us breathe in contribute to an estimated 40,000 early deaths across Britain and in the north of Ireland every single year.
“You don’t need to be an asthma sufferer or have breathing difficulties to care about this,” says Kissi-Debrah, “it affects everybody.”
“However, asthma can come on at any time or age. It’s in all our interests to care about pollution. This is where I think my daughter was cheated. She was ill and she wasn’t breathing clean air. That’s what we should be fighting for, for our children to breathe clean air.”
Kissi-Debrah is right. We owe it to the next generation to clean up the air. And it’s not just the streets of London that are blighted by poor air quality.
The Lancet and the Royal College of Physicians this week drew attention to World Health Organisation data showing air pollution is a serious problem across most of our major towns and cities — from Birmingham to Swansea to Glasgow.
If we want to do that we have to talk about cleaning up road transport and we have to talk about diesel.
The government’s own data is unequivocal — diesel vehicles are the biggest source of air pollution at the roadside, where the problem is most acute.
We’re not just talking about old bangers either. Even the latest diesel cars pump out significantly more pollution than petrol cars.
The industry maintains that new “Euro 6” diesels are the cleanest ever, but independent testing shows wild variation between different models. Astonishingly, one popular model emits 22 times the legal limit.
The government says it wants to see a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesels from 2040. This announcement lacks real ambition and urgency.
There are moves to phase out diesel and petrol in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands far earlier. Paris and other major cities are committing to diesel phase-outs by 2025. We can’t wait 23 years for action.
Friends of the Earth is campaigning to secure a socially just phase-out of diesel by 2025 from Britain’s roads.
But phasing out diesel vehicles over the next decade won’t be sufficient. We have to urgently implement policies that keep the most harmful fumes a safe distance from the most vulnerable people.
Evidence from Europe, and even modelling by the British government, shows that restricting where the dirtiest vehicles can go in towns and cities is the most effective way to rapidly reduce illegal levels of air pollution in the shortest possible time.
These schemes — known as “clean air zones” — are set to be implemented in Derby, Nottingham, Southampton, Birmingham and Leeds. But they’re needed in many more places and must be strengthened to apply to cars as well as larger vehicles.
Ahead of the general election, Labour committed to ending illegal levels of air pollution by the end of 2018. Clean air zones would be the most effective way of doing so.
Clean air zones would especially benefit the most vulnerable and deprived people who are disproportionately exposed to poor air quality.
Analysis has revealed 59 per cent of the population — 40 million people — live in areas where diesel pollution threatens health. Everybody deserves to breathe clean air — whether they live in leafy suburbs or on our inner city estates.
But these restrictions can’t be imposed in isolation.
It’s safe to assume that many people currently driving particularly old, polluting vehicles would have upgraded to something cleaner by now if they had the means. What’s more, we know many people bought diesels in good faith, having been misled by successive governments and manufacturers alike as to their supposed green qualities.
Government must therefore levy diesel manufacturers to fund an effective scrappage scheme, to help people get out of their polluting cars and into clean vehicles or — preferably — car clubs, cheaper and better public transport, cycling and walking. After all, reducing the number of vehicles on the road is the most effective way to reduce pollution, and more active travel will of course bring a range of benefits to people’s physical and mental health.
Overall we have to make sure our towns and city centres are accessible, people are able to be mobile, and they are places where both people and nature can thrive. This requires boldness of vision and real investment — and we’d all be better off for it.
We know the transition to less car use won’t happen overnight. For many reasons, many people will still need to drive.
That’s why part of the solution should be a just transition towards electric vehicles. This year saw the opening of the electric taxi factory in Coventry, creating jobs and cleaning up our taxi fleet.
Electric vehicles and battery development provide an opportunity to be at the forefront of a growing global market and create jobs. Electric cars are predicted to be as cheap to own as petrol cars by the end of this year, with improvements in battery technology making “range anxiety” increasingly a thing of the past.
There are so many reasons to act on air pollution with urgency — the health and wellbeing of millions of people is one. Climate is another. With transport accounting for a quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions it’s critical that we rapidly move away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
We can clean up road transport. We can do it in a fair way, be transformative, create jobs, reduce health inequalities and act on climate.
We have to.
As Kissi-Debrah said: “Everyone has the right to breathe clean air” — let’s make that a reality.
Friends of the Earth have launched teaching materials on air pollution and organise air quality monitoring. Find out more: foe.co.uk/clean-air.