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Sat, 13 April 2024

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Environment
By Earl Russell
Environment
Environment
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Cleaning up our polluted air and ending the climate crisis are part of the same overall goal

3 min read

Air pollution and climate change are often treated as two individual issues. Baroness Jones, vice-chair of the Air Pollution APPG, explains why they go hand in hand on the way to a greener future.

Most of the solutions to cleaning up our polluted air are also solutions to the climate crisis. If more people get out of cars and onto electric buses in cities, then it cuts air pollution and it cuts CO2 emissions. If we encourage and plan for local shops and services to be within an easy 15-minute walk of where a lot of people live, then there will be fewer people in cars polluting the air – another small shift towards saving the planet.

The bigger shifts also have a double whammy upside. Airports are a major source of air pollution and carbon emissions. Rules on air pollution have been a major obstacle to the expansion of Heathrow, delaying its progress until a shift towards online meetings put a massive hole in the finances. The failure to build a third runway has thankfully held back the expansion of aviation. That, in turn, has helped to slow down the rise in carbon emissions. Win, win.

Local opposition to incinerators on the ground, on the basis that they can pollute the surrounding area, has also helped delay the expansion of environmentally damaging energy production by the waste sector, which is now (after the demise of coal) the most carbon-intensive way of producing electricity in the United Kingdom. The burning of waste increases air pollution and it certainly reduces the amount of waste that is recycled or reused. It may be tempting to burn all that oil-based plastic, but that means you are basically burning oil, rather than thinking of ways we can stop producing so much of the stuff in the first place.

It is clear from the correlation between the rise of incinerators and the flatlining of recycling in the last decade, that the only way the government can hit its recycling and reuse targets is to put an immediate ban on new incinerators and to slowly run down the ones that have already been built. Recycling and reuse is far more energy efficient and that means less carbon emissions.

Of course, not all the progress with air pollution will automatically lead to progress in solving the climate emergency. I’m a big fan of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) and the principle of making the polluter pay is the right one. However, electric and low-emission vehicles will only bring down CO2 emissions if the electricity is sourced from renewables. ULEZ will reduce certain types of air pollution and that is great, but the tyre and brake wear from thousands of vehicles still produces the particulates that infiltrate our lungs, brains and other internal organs.

We all want a healthy life and a healthy planet. We need more solutions that show how these two aims can align.

An easy solution to the persistent pollution problem of particulates is to have fewer vehicles on the roads and less congestion. The shift to electric vehicles presents a major opportunity, if the government was willing to invest in providing electric car club vehicles, available to hire, on every road. This would address the problem of people not being able to afford a switch to an electric car and also reduce the cost of private transport for millions of people who are infrequent car users, but still have to carry all the heavy costs of running their own vehicle.

We all want a healthy life and a healthy planet. We need more solutions that show how these two aims can align.

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