Air pollution shows the climate emergency is also a health emergency

Scientific studies have proven time and again that air pollution causes serious health impacts and premature death. Treating it like a health emergency would also mean action on the climate emergency. So why is the UK government still lagging behind?


Air pollution in general is many things, but air pollution on our roads primarily comes from diesel vehicles. These produce particulate matter (PM) – tiny particles that can get into the bloodstream – and nitrogen oxide gases. This chemical soup can irritate airways and aggravate and trigger health conditions.

London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charge, which began in April 2019, has produced some promising early results. The scheme, which charges those driving in central London based on the pollution their vehicle produces, has reduced harmful gases from air pollution by a third.

The ULEZ will be expanded to include much of Greater London in 2021. The charge has raised over £40m for Transport for London since it began, and a £2,000 scrappage scheme is now available for low-income and disabled road users.  But it is still a London-only scheme – other cities must fend off pollution themselves. 

Only one city, Bristol, has taken steps to ban diesel cars. While welcome, the move serves to highlight how little the UK government has done to tackle this growing national health crisis.

Air pollution’s negative health impacts continue to dominate the airwaves

On the same day the ULEZ results were announced, a study found that high pollution days in cities across the country caused spikes in cardiac arrests, strokes or severe asthma attacks. In response, the chief executive of NHS England stated that “it’s clear that the climate emergency is in fact also a health emergency.”

A long line of harrowing scientific studies on air pollution prove this fact. In the UK, around 36,000 early deaths each year are thought to be caused by the serious health impacts of air pollution. In addition, air pollution is now thought to damage every organ in the human body.

Pregnant women and children are particularly at risk: studies have confirmed that, in the case of miscarriages, air pollution poses a similar risk as smoking. Scientists are even finding traces of air pollution in placentas

Air pollution stunts child lung growth, causes and triggers asthma, and was thought to play a key role in the death of nine year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah following an asthma attack.

Some researchers have even concluded that air pollution is linked to mental health problems. This includes depression, a reduction in intelligence equivalent to having lost a year at school, and aggressive behaviour. 

As with the climate emergency, highly polluted communities are often those that are more socially and economically disadvantaged – meaning the impacts fall on those least responsible for the crisis.

Air pollution requires urgent, effective action

Although ULEZ is a step in the right direction, the UK lags behind other European countries in terms of joined-up thinking on air pollution. In the Netherlands, about 27% of all trips made are by bicycle, compared with 2% in Britain. In Norway, well over half of new cars sold are electric, and all cars have been banned from central Oslo, with only a few exceptions.

As well as expanding schemes like ULEZ nationwide, the UK government should incentivise “active travel” including walking and cycling – and subsidise public transport or make it free. 

The government has the power to bring forward the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars to 2030 from 2040 – a move necessary to meet climate objectives as well. The chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, John Gummer, was so unimpressed with the government’s efforts on climate they’ve dubbed ministers “Dad’s Army”, after the 70s TV show.

Currently, there are no legal limits for PM in UK environmental law. The recent environment bill missed an opportunity to propose firm regulations for PM in line with World Health Organisation targets.

Government must set legal standards

Instead of government action, the blame is shifted to individuals. BP, for example, has released a carbon footprint tracker, showing that they regard action on the climate emergency as personal responsibility issue. It is not

Individuals’ main responsibility is to elect governments that take a strong line on regulating the negative effects of company activities that damage our health.

Thankfully, 2019 has been the year that school strikers, Extinction Rebellion activists and ordinary citizens of all ages have been demanding that our government acts like it’s an emergency. Two-thirds of voters polled agreed that the climate emergency was the biggest issue facing humankind, and over half say it will affect how they vote.

Climate change, like air pollution, might be difficult to visualise – but increasing health impacts will mean both will become harder to ignore. 

Any future British government should make like London and Bristol, and legislate nationally on air pollution. Not only will it make it easier to reduce emissions, it will also limit health impacts and therefore reduce spending on healthcare for those affected.


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