HomePolitical leadershipFixing the state of the air we breathe is an easy win for health, the economy and the climate

Fixing the state of the air we breathe is an easy win for health, the economy and the climate

This post is by Sean Maguire, director of strategic partnerships at the Clean Air Fund.

As the new environment and foreign secretaries take up their roles this week, air quality should be high on their ‘to do’ lists. There are few investments that have such potential to simultaneously improve health, save lives, increase productivity and help the UK achieve its climate goals like improving our air.

Polluted air is one of the most significant contributors to poor health globally, ahead of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV Aids. It is the fifth biggest killer by health risk factor worldwide. Nearly all the world’s population breathes air that exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines and at least 4.5 million people die every year as a result. In the UK alone, air pollution accounts for between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths every year.

Action gets quick results
What these numbers don’t reveal is that this problem is entirely solvable, as recent developments at home have shown. In recent years, new legislation has restricted the sale of the most polluting fuels used in domestic burning, Clean Air Zones in three cities to reduce nitrogen dioxide concentrations have been launched (with three more expected this year). The expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone has resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in NO2 concentrations alongside roads in inner London.

The UK’s new Environment Act is an opportunity to go further and faster on this, with recent analysis showing that the vast majority of the UK could be on track to meet the WHO targets for clean air (WHO-10) by 2030, by just existing and planned policies, ten years ahead of the government’s proposed deadline of 2040. This would result in health and economic benefits to the tune of £380 billion between 2018 and 2134, including fewer asthma risk days, lower incidence of heart disease and an average increase in life expectancy from birth.

Globally, investment in cleaner air is also a massive opportunity. The toxic effects of air pollution disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, so addressing it will also help to reduce inequality. And, because it severely hampers workforce productivity, clean air initiatives can boost economic development.

A drive for cleaner air deals with some of society’s biggest challenges simultaneously, from health to climate change. Sources of air pollution and climate change overlap substantially, so action to tackle both can and should be joined up, giving more cost effective, faster and fairer results with the same resources.

Air pollution is overlooked in international development aid
As the Clean Air Fund’s newest State of global air quality funding report shows, despite the evidence of positive impact, air quality improvement is still largely overlooked in international development funding. Even though addressing it directly helps to achieve many sustainable development goals, and despite the links between air quality and climate change, the $11 billion funding it receives accounts for only 0.5 per cent of global development aid. This means that, between 2015 and 2020, only $5 in every $1,000 spent by a development funder was spent on tackling outdoor air pollution.

Even after the British government cut its national aid spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, the UK remains one of the top five countries worldwide for development aid spending overall. But it drops way down the ranking when it comes to air quality. Unlike Germany, the EU, Japan and the USA, the UK does not feature in the top ten donors for clean air action, spending less than $11 million on air quality out of its total aid budget of $18.6 billion per year. Other countries see the global and national benefits, it’s time the UK did more to clean up.

Today is International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. It is focused on transboundary air pollution and the need for collective action.


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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.