“The real cost of fossil fuels is seen in your lungs.”
That’s been the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) message to the Paris COP21 climate summit.
Maria Neira, director of WHO’s public health division, talks about the big “win-win” of climate change: combat air pollution and you reduce greenhouse gas emissions – while simultaneously tackling the greatest public health risk of our time.
We see the point starkly manifested this week in Beijing.
Once again, the city has been all but consumed by a cloud of its own deathly smog. But it’s the first time the captial has ever issued a red smog alert – the highest warning possible, with schools being ordered to close.
Air pollution is often referred to as the “silent killer”. It’s an epithet that could just as easily be applied to climate change itself.
Writing recently, Owen Jones called climate change the “dullest” of all human crises – “too abstract, too technical and too long term”.
But – as he also noted – it’s really none of those things at all. It’s real, terrifyingly simple and we’re seeing its impacts today.
The scientists are agreed. Only politicians still seem willing to invent ways to squabble and ignore the facts. But the truth is, if people are to be galvanised into action, climate change needs to feel closer to home.
And yet, it couldn’t get much closer.
Air pollution is a good example.
Globally it now kills seven million people every year – more than conflict; more than Malaria, more than obesity. The air we breathe is choking our planet – warming it, changing it. It’s also choking our local communities, and killing our children too.
That’s true whether you live in Beijing or Brent.
Just days ago we learned that nearly a quarter of London’s school children are breathing air so filthy it is breaching EU law. A damning report found that almost 1,000 schools in our capital were in areas exceeding legal limits of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – that’s largely caused by diesel cars, lorries and buses and it affects lung capacity and growth.
Imagine the outrage if 53,000 people were dying in road traffic accidents every single year. Yet that’s the number of early deaths from air pollution – almost 9,500 in London alone. It’s a monumental public health crisis. But this government has virtually ignored the problem.
The Supreme Court and European Court of Justice agree. This year both ordered the UK government to clean up its act on air quality and implement a plan to meet legal standards in the shortest possible timeframe.
We need a fresh approach to the air we breathe.
Labour’s Mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan MP – also in Paris this week for climate talks – is working for a clean air revolution in London.
His plans include a radical expansion of the ultra-low emissions zone, a free parking space on every street for electric cars, and the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street – which, under the current Mayor, hit headlines for exceeding its total legal air pollution limits for the whole year in the space of just 96 hours.
These measures must be complemented by soft green infrastructure. Children are particularly susceptible to the impacts of air pollution. We know that children whose school is within 150 meters of a main road grow up with lung capacity impaired by up to a third. That’s why Sadiq plans to plant two million trees around London schools.
We have no choice over the air we breathe. But governments do.
From Paris we need to see independent and legally-binding safeguards to ensure Government promises are kept. And we need a clear and robust system to ensure current promises can be tightened or ratcheted up.
Climate action is about justice.
One of the biggest debates here at COP21 is about differentiation – countries accepting that they have both different responsibilities and different capacities to act; because those who have contributed least to the problem of climate change are the ones suffering most from its effects. The same is precisely true of those suffering most from the effects of our polluted air.
Addressing climate change globally promotes health, education and gender equality. Addressing it domestically secures UK jobs and sustainable clean economic growth; it protects communities from flooding and the scandal of fuel poverty. It begins to see clean air flow in our cities and schools.
Yes, too much of what we talk about with climate change feels too distant. In a way that’s been the point – to address the issue before it’s reached its catastrophic tipping point. But it’s failed – we’ve talked for too long; spent decades dawdling. The narrative needs to change to effect urgent action.
That’s why, before I left for Paris, I joined tens of thousands at the People’s Climate March in London voicing a bold, fresh narrative – a narrative that sees climate action as an opportunity and a fundamental means of tackling social injustice.
If melting ice caps won’t move us, perhaps air pollution will. Because it’s not just out there – it’s in the very air we breathe. And you can’t get much closer than that.