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Coming Up For Air


‘What if we had this sort of air quality not because everyone is forced to sit at home but because we managed the shift to clean transport and energy?’

So said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead author of a CREA assessment published in April 2020 of the air quality and health impacts of reduced fossil fuel consumption during the coronavirus pandemic. During April alone, the lockdown measures taken have resulted in an approximate 40 percent reduction in average nitrogen dioxide pollution levels and over 1,700 avoided deaths from air pollution in the UK.

Based on analysis by ClientEarth of UK Government statistics on air pollution in this country, only 7 out of 43 zones that cover the entire UK had legal levels of air pollution last year. Given these odds, if you live in the UK you probably live in one of the 36 zones with illegally high air pollution.

What is the impact of this failure to protect people from such toxic air? Air pollution continues to be one of the UK’s biggest killers, linked to up to 36,000 premature deaths a year and with a disproportionate impact on deprived communities. Breathing in air pollution is especially bad for young children whose lungs are still developing – but we are all affected.

Nitrogen dioxide is one of the most harmful pollutant gases, and road traffic is a leading source. The legal limit of nitrogen dioxide pollution under the current EU Ambient Air Quality directive is an annual average concentration level of 40µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air). This is not a new target: it is a legal obligation that we should have met by 2010. Real World Visuals is one agency that is helping to make this invisible threat visible. For example, each of the 9,416 spots below represents an individual life lost in London from air pollution in 2010:

After months of little or no travel, we are now coming up for air and emerging from lockdown. After a lost decade and too many lost lives from toxic air pollution, what should we do differently? We could build more roads as part of our national economy post-COVID recovery plan so that we can accommodate more vehicles. We could ignore the EU Ambient Air Quality directive and introduce lower air quality standards for the UK after we leave the EU. Or we could fast track more clean air zones in our most polluted cities and areas and invest in a more fundamental shift from private motorised vehicles to cleaner, healthier ways of moving around.

Graphic by Real World Visuals

Photo by Sam Schooler on Unsplash

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