What if the water that came out of your taps made you – and thousands of others – ill? How would people respond? Voters would quite rightly demand that the government act decisively to address the problem. Heads would roll in the boardrooms of the big water companies. And demand for alternatives such as bottled water would spike. Yet scientists and campaigners – validated by the UK courts – have been telling us for years that the air we breathe is both lethal and illegal, and the response from our politicians has been negligible.
Invisible pollutants – such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter(PM2.5) – put us at higher risk of everything from asthma to stroke, and cancer to heart disease. One study suggests that nearly 60% of the UK’s population live in areas where air pollution is above the legal limit. The end result is staggering: 40,000 early deaths every year in the UK. In London, this makes air pollution the second-biggest health risk, outranking alcohol consumption and obesity.
The government, at the behest of the UK courts, has published three national air pollution plans in as many years, each aiming to bring the UK into compliance with EU law on pollution levels. All of these have been deemed inadequate by the UK’s supreme court. The latest of these plans was endorsed by Michael Gove and was this week rejected once again. This time it will be passed to the European court of justice (ECJ), which, unlike the UK courts, has the power to fine the government if it fails to comply.
This raises the question: why has the response been so feeble? The answer: dealing with air pollution means dealing with its causes, and one of the biggest sources of air pollution is cars. Over a third of pollution across the UK is the result of road transport, rising to 80% at the roadside in urban areas (where we are breaching EU law). The government’s own plans show that the most effective measure would be to ban the most polluting vehicles – particularly diesel – from our city centres.
This is challenging stuff. It’s easy for people to switch from tap to bottled water but getting out of our cars is a different matter. It’s not just that people see it as inconvenient: they deem it an affront to their human rights and their identity. After all, mass car ownership was one of the defining symbols of both personal and national success in the last century.
Some of the bravest politicians have started to confront this reality. In London, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, is bringing in additional charges on diesel vehicles to discourage their usage, among a host of other measures. The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have followed suit, announcing plans to put in place an outright ban on the most polluting vehicles. These are undoubtedly steps in the right direction, but to really win the battle we must go further.
An extra charge on people who want to use their car is seen as a burden. The benefits are real but quite literally invisible: marginally cleaner air. Health improves as a result, but most people will not grasp the link to air pollution. It’s only when people can see and feel the difference to their commute that they will really appreciate the benefits of tackling air pollution and getting out of their car.
In this light, addressing air pollution becomes a much bigger project: one that fundamentally aims to transform our cities and the way we all live. The first step is pedestrianising our city centres and investing in green public spaces. This should make it easier and more enjoyable for people to walk or cycle to work. Public transport – buses, trains and trams – needs to provide a more comprehensive service, be less crowded and become quicker.
This is far from impossible. Oslo, in Norway, plans to permanently ban all cars from its city centre by 2019, while half of Copenhagen’s population already cycles to work every day. In the UK, once again Khan is making the running, with a proposal to pedestrianise Oxford Street first, before turning his sights to other parts of capital. But metro-mayors cannot do this alone: the government must step in to help as well.
Instead of seeing air pollution as a liability, the environment minister Michael Gove should turn it into an opportunity. He should bring forward the proposed ban on purchasing new petrol and diesel cars by a decade to 2030. He should mandate the UK’s most polluted cities to pedestrianise their city centres. And, the government should provide funding for a significant increase in investment in both public space and public transport.
This is not just the right thing to do for our physical health but also our climate and – with congestion due to cost the UK economy £61.8bn over the next decade – our economy as well. In the words of Henry Ford, “The remains of the old must be decently laid away; the path of the new prepared.” He is right: it’s just that this time round it is his legacy that must be swept aside in search of a better future.
• Harry Quilter-Pinner is director of strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in east London. He is also a research fellow at IPPR, the UK’s progressive thinktank. He writes here in a personal capacity