HomeLow carbon futureToxic air is an equality issue that can’t be ignored any more

Toxic air is an equality issue that can’t be ignored any more

Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, co-founder of Choked Up

For a young person, living in an area with extremely high air pollution that far exceeds World Health Organization guidelines can feel like an inescapable burden. It is the prospect that you have little control over the air you breathe. I mean, you can’t just opt in or out of breathing.

For many young people living in the most polluted areas of London, which also happen to be the most deprived areas, moving away to somewhere with better air is simply not possible. But what makes it scarier is how quickly one forgets how poor the quality of air is. Dirty air in this century isn’t the visible, potent, green fog it was in the 20th century, that makes itself known to everyone and forces them to take immediate action. Instead, it lurks in the background, possibly only presenting itself in the form of an asthma attack. The invisibility of air pollution is partly why the issue of toxic air has been pushed down the agenda of things to worry about for politicians and the public for so long.

BAME communities are among the most affected by bad air
Being a person of colour living in an area with dangerously poor air quality makes this worse. Research has shown that black and brown people bear the brunt of negative health impacts from air pollution, despite contributing to it far less than their white counterparts as they are less likely to own the vehicles that cause it.

People from a black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) background are twice as likely to live in the most polluted areas of London. This clearly shows that air quality is not only a question of environmental justice but also a question of social justice. The harmful effects of air pollution on the BAME community are two-fold.

First, the environmental movement has historically been, and continues to be, very white and middle class, which has contributed to those environmental issues that affect people in an immediate sense (especially people of colour and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) being sidelined. This means that people of colour, like me, feel like there is little space in which to voice our concerns about the quality of our air and how it affects our communities.

Second, and more importantly, air pollution is having devastating effects on the health of people in the BAME community. For example, air pollution is shown to stunt the lung growth of children in London by 13 per cent and increase the risk of them contracting coronary disease later in life. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. A study by the Office for National Statistics concluded that black people are four times more likely to die from a coronavirus related illness than white people. It is likely that long term damage to overall health and lung health from exposure to poor air is among the factors that have led to this frightening statistic. This means we need equitable solutions to the problem, ensuring that the most severely affected communities are prioritised when tackling air quality. 

National government is dragging its feet
National government action on air pollution is extremely disappointing. The current protracted foot dragging and delay to the Environment Bill’s passage through parliament isn’t something one would expect from a government which claims to be ‘levelling up’ its approach to the environmental crisis and to be concerned about the health of its citizens.

Ideally, a new Clean Air Act is needed to tackle this current crisis at a national level and take into account the different needs of different areas across the country. The upcoming mayoral elections are an opportunity to ensure that something changes at a regional level. This is a chance for air quality to be prioritised by voters and the candidates competing to be regional leaders.

In London, the expansion later this year of the ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), the implementation of a zero emission bus fleet and the repurposing of London’s ‘red routes’ will be a much needed start to delivering healthy and safe air for everyone in the capital. 

Dirty air isn’t inevitable. It is time to finally start taking this crisis seriously, so those people who are being affected disproportionately by it every day do not have to suffer any longer.   

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.