Clean air is worth the political price

Published by The Times (25th July, 2019)

Slowly but surely, the world is waking up to the climate emergency. I recently returned from Chennai, where one of India’s biggest urban centres, and home to much of its motoring industry, has run out of water. The city was baking hot, the roads thronged with honking vehicles and pollution hung in the air. Now I’m back in London amid similar temperatures and crowded streets, but the air I inhale as I cycle around is more toxic in some ways than in Chennai, with higher levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The issues of environmental degradation are global but some solutions are local, especially when it comes to the silent killer of particles in the air. Scientists are slowly unravelling the impact of pollution on our bodies, both physically and mentally, leading to talk that dirty air is “the new tobacco” in terms of health disaster. Public Health England warns that pollution, linked to about 35,000 early deaths a year, will create another 2.4 million cases of disease by 2035. Action is being taken to tackle the problem, with higher taxes on diesel cars, attempts to boost cycling and a target to cut the numbers living in areas exceeding World Health Organisation pollution limits.

But progress is slower than the cars crawling around the capital. As Boris Johnson takes office — a politician with instinctive dislike of state diktats but also a keen cyclist — it is worth recalling that as London mayor he scrapped an extension of the congestion charge and delayed plans for a low-emission zone. Yet this is an issue that needs firm leadership and innovative measures.

There have been successes in recent decades, such as the targeting of sulphur dioxide in coal power stations and a sharp fall in early deaths linked to filthy air. Yet a new report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admits that, despite publication of its Clean Air Strategy, there will still be 1.8 million people in areas exceeding the WHO limit by the end of the next decade. This is simply not good enough.

This newspaper’s Clean Air for All campaign is right to call for an independent regulator with strong powers of enforcement rather than vague targets pushed into the foggy future. Yes, there is a political cost to cleaning up cities and industries while getting dirty cars off roads but the rewards are great, whether saving NHS cash or creating a greener and more pleasant land for us all to live in.

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