“How much are you prepared to have on your shoulders the responsibility for those deaths?” Dr Maria Neira didn’t hold back when she challenged city mayors over their failure to tackle air pollution this month.
As director of public health at the World Health Organisation, she is uniquely qualified to pose the question. Indeed, 99 per cent of our world’s population is now breathing toxic air, causing 13 deaths every minute. The UK is not immune to this global health crisis, as the story of south London schoolgirl Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah tragically illustrates.
After being diagnosed with severe asthma, Ella was admitted to hospital more than 30 times before she died in 2013. Following her death, aged nine, it emerged that Ella had a form of asthma which made her particularly sensitive to the quality of the air she breathed. There was also a correlation between spikes in air pollution near the family home and Ella’s admissions to hospital.
Eight long years after losing Ella – and following a relentless campaign by her indefatigable mother, Rosamund – a coroner concluded last year that toxic air in south London had contributed to the asthma attack that claimed Ella’s life. It was a landmark moment. Ella became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.
Her loss was utterly devastating but by no means unique. In fact, the air we breathe is leading to the premature deaths of up to 36,000 Britons each year.
Pollution particles are a public health menace. Toxic air in towns and cities across the UK is destroying our health at every stage of life: children are growing up with stunted lungs, adults are developing cancer, and older people are facing an increased risk of dementia.
As mayors we have a choice. We could watch from the side-lines as our streets clog up with polluting vehicles and fill our air with poison. But instead, we choose to intervene to protect public health, while supporting people to ensure a just transition and giving them reliable, low-carbon alternatives to creating congestion.
London introduced its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019, expanded it last year, and has recently consulted on extending it to cover the whole of Greater London. The ULEZ requires any vehicles driving on London’s streets to meet the toughest emissions standard enforced by any major city in the world.
Thanks to this initiative, millions more Londoners are now breathing cleaner air and toxic nitrogen dioxide levels have been cut by nearly half in central London.
Next week, Bristol will become the latest city to take action with the launch of its Clean Air Zone. As mayors we know that our cities face a national cost-of-living crisis, and so we will ensure the burden does not fall on those least able to carry it. It’s why we offer exemptions and financial support to the most vulnerable drivers, small businesses, and charities.
Bristol secured £42m to help residents and businesses upgrade their vehicles, as well as initial exemptions until the end of March 2023 for hospital visitors and patients, disabled people and low-income workers. And through London’s City Hall-funded £61m scrappage scheme, more than 15,000 of the most polluting vehicles have been removed from its roads.
Limiting toxic vehicle emissions is only a part of the prescription to ensure all our communities enjoy healthy air. London, for instance, has put more than 800 zero emission buses into operation on its streets.
Meanwhile, Bristol has introduced over 100 bio-gas buses into its fleet and is on its way to pedestrianising major roads in its city centre. And through the West of England Combined Authority, a further £15m has been committed for master-planning an underground mass transit system. This will give Bristolians the chance of a real alternative to road-based transport, transforming how people move around the city.
Next month marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Smog – a catastrophic environmental and health emergency in which thousands of residents in the UK capital perished. The government of the day responded by introducing the Clean Air Act. Not everyone was happy at the time but habits had to change, and the legislation led to a dramatic decline in pollution and hugely improved our nation’s air.
Our two great cities now face another air quality emergency. We continue to lobby the government to play its part, but also recognise our moral obligation to protect the lives and improve the health of those we represent. Everyone in Bristol, London, and beyond has the right to breathe clean air. As mayors, we don’t shirk our responsibility to ensure that happens.
[See also: Conservative Environment Network: the government must attract green investment, not deter it]