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Air pollution is a problem we can solve - but the Government must show ambition in the Environment Act

Kate Langford, Programme Director of the Health effects of air pollution programme | Impact on Urban Health

3 min read Partner content

If the Government is serious about addressing health inequality, it must set ambitious targets for clean air.

In March, the Government opened a public consultation asking people to feedback on proposed air quality limits for the UK. Those proposals don’t reflect the scale of the air quality crisis, or the profound effect it’s having on people's health in the UK.

The Government is suggesting setting air quality limits that would allow twice as much small-particulate pollution in England as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as an upper limit. And the Government is proposing we do not meet that target until 2040.

That’s despite research that shows reaching the WHO’s recommended guidelines across most of the UK is within our grasp by 2030 – ten years earlier than the Government is aiming for.


Air pollution is a social justice issue

The Government’s proposals would fail to mitigate the devastating effects air pollution has on people’s health across the UK, exposing them to dangerous levels of toxic air for a decade longer than is necessary.

As the Government has recognised, air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to health and contributes to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Put simply, poor air quality is a public health crisis that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

The proposed targets also undermine the Government’s ambition to address health disparities.

The Government has committed itself to narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancy between the poorest and richest areas. But taking a soft approach to air pollution is likely to exacerbate rather than solve health inequalities.

Air pollution is a social justice issue, inexorably linked to inequality, and those most affected often do the least to contribute to the problem. The people most likely to breathe in toxic fumes from cars, for example, are often those who can’t afford to drive.

As the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove has said: “Air pollution is making people ill, shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment.”

Air pollution is a social justice issue, inexorably linked to inequality, and those most affected often do the least to contribute to the problem.

Improving people’s lives

There is nothing inevitable about air pollution; we can improve air quality in the UK. Earlier this year, Chris Whitty described air pollution as “solvable” and the Clean Air Fund and Imperial College London’s report describes a pathway to healthy air in the UK by 2030.

At Impact on Urban Health, we've worked with industry and businesses, with the NHS, local authorities, and communities to use creative, innovative interventions that could help to meet clean air targets by 2030.

It’s vital that decisionmakers understand the effect that air pollution has on people’s lives. That’s why we’re working with Asthma and Lung UK to gather stories from people who have been affected by air pollution and, later this year, will be presenting those stories to MPs in Parliament.

Government must lead the way

The target setting process is the perfect opportunity for the Government to show the ambition needed to improve air quality. Doing so would help to reduce health inequalities, improve public health, and relieve pressure on the NHS.


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