MPs warn of 'poisonous air' emergency cost

Dr Julia Meaton

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability Dr Julia Meaton comments on the news story which says MPs have demanded an end to the UK's "poisonous air" in an unprecedented report from four Commons committees.

“In 1952 a fatal ‘peasouper’ smog lasted 4 days and is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of between 4000 – 12,000 people. The smog was tangible in that it reduced visibility to a few yards and caused movement by foot and by vehicle to be extremely hazardous. The event was a major catalyst in the emergence of environmental legislation, resulting in the Clean Air Act of 1956. 

66 years later and after 6 decades of environmental legislation poisonous air is still causing headlines, and deaths. Claims made today that 40,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of air pollution, and that it costs the UK economy £20 billion every year should be prompting stronger and more effective policy change. Out of 188 Countries, the UK is ranked 55th in terms of air quality, behind the USA and many of our European neighbours. Unlike the 1952 peasouper this pollution is largely invisible and the links between pollution and deaths are less tangible meaning that most of the UK population are largely ignorant of the risks they take when engaging in daily activities. 

There are a myriad causes of air pollution but the blame is commonly and currently focussing on vehicle emissions, in particular those derived from diesel cars which the public were incentivised to buy in 2001 because of their lower Co2 emissions. Unfortunately, the broader health related impacts of diesel motors, specifically their nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions, were underestimated and poorly understood. The current government’s aim to eliminate all diesel and petrol motors is a policy to be welcomed - except the target year for this to be achieved is 2040, some 10 years later than India’s similar pledge. Despite significant rises in the number of electric vehicles (EVs), plug in hybrids (PHEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEvs) these only currently represent 2% of the UK’s new car market. Significant incentives need to be used so that this percentage can rise quickly and steeply. The government’s clean air fund of £220million, paid for by vehicle taxation, might seem an excellent start, but compared to the £20billion annual cost and the unquantifiable human misery of 40,000 premature deaths each year, this is looking like a paltry offering. 

Perhaps if air pollution and its consequences were more visible, as they were in 1952, the British public would be more supportive of financial and political measures to ensure our collective wellbeing, and the government would be empowered to make bolder and more impactful changes.” 

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