New analysis suggests three million working days a year are lost to air pollution
The UK economy could enjoy a clean air dividend of £1.6bn if World Health Organisation (WHO) targets for air quality were met, a major new report has calculated.
The research, conducted by CBI Economics and funded by the Clean Air Fund, suggests three million working days a year are currently lost due to the impact of air pollution on public health.
Using four major UK cities as its focus, the report - titled Breathing Life into the UK Economy - says the estimated benefit of meeting WHO targets would reach nearly half a billion pounds in London, while Birmingham would enjoy a £25m economic boost, Bristol would secure £7m of gains, and Manchester would see £28m of economic benefits.
It also stresses that up to 17,000 premature deaths could be avoided if the WHO targets are met.
"We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier too," said Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund. "If businesses and government work together to ensure clean air for all, we can protect our health and re-energise the economy at this critical time. Ministers must commit to binding targets to cut air pollution in line with WHO guidelines by 2030."
The report does not take account of how improvements in air quality could help prevent early retirement, impact the voluntary sectors, and shape consumer behaviour, and as such the authors suggest their analysis is likely to be conservative.
While air quality has been moving up the political agenda in recent years, campaigners fear momentum has stalled as a result of the coronavirus crisis, which initially saw the public advised to avoid public transport where possible. Clean Air Zones that were due to be launched in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds in 2020 have since been postponed until at least 2021, while Greater Manchester's plans have been delayed until 2022.
As such the Clean Air Fund is now urging the government to include a legally-binding commitment to meet WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the upcoming Environment Bill. The bill currently mentions 'a target' for particulate matter (PM2.5), a particularly deadly form of pollution, but does not specify what that target will be nor impose a deadline for when it should be met. Other pollutants such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) are not mentioned at all.
Responding to the report, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan urged the government to step up efforts to tackle air pollution. "I am doing everything in my power to stop Londoners breathing air so filthy that it damages children's lungs and causes thousands of premature deaths," he said. "The Ultra Low Emission Zone has already cut toxic air by a third. We want to go further and will be expanding the ULEZ up to the North and South circular roads in 2021.
"[But] pollution isn't just a central London problem, which is why I have consistently demanded that the government match my ambition and improve the Environment Bill to include legally binding World Health Organisation recommended limits, to be achieved by 2030, and to give cities the powers they need to eradicate air pollution."
Meanwhile, Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees pointed to the inequality associated with air quality. "Poor air quality damages lives and disproportionately impacts our BAME and lower income communities and we want them to share in the economic benefits of improved air quality this analysis highlights," he said.
The report comes just a day after the Good Law Project announced it was seeking a Judicial Review over the government's refusal to review its air quality strategy in the light of evidence that air pollution has exacerbated the health risks associated with Covid-19.
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