Air quality is big news these days – featuring on the front pages of all the papers, leading political campaigns and headlining the TV news. Just a few years ago, things were very different. You could go for months without seeing anything about air pollution in the papers or on the evening news. I know, because I was looking for it, and it wasn’t there.
What has brought about this change? As we in the air quality “community” emerge blinking into the glare of publicity, here is my take on why there’s been a transformation in how air pollution is perceived and understood – and plain old talked-about.
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Air pollution really matters
We all (well, nearly all) know that global warming matters: Al Gore, and more recently, David Attenborough, tell us so.
Climate changes are starting to affect us now, and ominously, there’s a lot more to come. But air pollution is arguably a more urgent problem, wreaking its destructive effects on health and the natural environment in real time.
Today’s pollution is causing harm today. But of course, that’s nothing new: pollution has been affecting our health and our environment for centuries: the first air quality strategy for London was published in 1661. So why are we only waking up to the realities now?
We know how much it matters
The numbers vary a bit, but we now know that air pollution causes about seven million early deaths worldwide every year. That’s a lot of people, a lot of individuals – a lot of avoidable suffering. In the UK, we experience a bit less than our fair share of these early deaths, because our pollution levels are a bit lower than those experienced by people in towns and cities worldwide, but even here, air pollution is responsible for around forty thousand early deaths every year.
These are big numbers, but of course, big numbers don’t always mean big news, so this isn’t the whole story.
We know how much it costs
Now we’re talking. Air pollution costs money, mainly because of lost economic activity, healthcare costs, and reduced agricultural productivity. As a rough estimate, the cost of air pollution is about 1 per cent of global GDP, or 3 trillion US dollars per year worldwide.
Here in the UK, the cost of air pollution is estimated to be about 80 billion US dollars annually, a considerably larger figure than anything Boris Johnson ever painted on the side of a bus.
That’s a lot of money, but I don’t remember a groundswell of discontent when the figure for the UK was published in 2015.
I couldn’t find any record of it in the papers at the time, though there was a big splash in “Air Quality News.”
Unlike the cash we send to the EU, the air pollution cost seems to be diffuse and intangible, made up of lots of individual costs and impacts that we can’t separately identify or allocate to air pollution.
Something else had to change before air pollution could hit the big time.
The court scene is a staple of many TV dramas – the judge, the barristers, the witnesses, urgent whispering in corridors, and an unexpected verdict. Perhaps surprisingly, air quality management has not yet been the focus of a prime time box set production.
That might reflect the fact that dealing with air quality usually involves careful monitoring, detailed data analysis, office work and bringing people together – as a rule, there’s perhaps a bit less action than in your average police procedural or courtroom drama.
All that changed in 2015, when the UK government was taken to court by ClientEarth, an environmental law charity, for failing to produce adequate plans to improve air quality.
Such cases have happened before, but the unusual thing about this case was that ClientEarth won, and went on winning in a series of subsequent cases.
Now at last we have a story: the government being defeated in the law courts is definitely news. These cases have made the papers, the TV news, and maybe, even, started to impinge on the national consciousness.
A pantomime villain
Who doesn’t like the pantomime? The opportunity to cheer the hero, boo the villain, and point out when somebody is standing to the rear of somebody else. Well, even if it’s not your thing, there is something about a bad guy that fascinates us. How much more fascinating if the bad guys come from the world of big business?
And the world of air pollution had its very own pantomime villain when Volkswagen started fitting special devices in its cars which were designed to cheat the emissions tests. As a result, many Volkswagen cars have been running around the streets emitting higher levels of pollution.
In the air pollution world, we suspected that something was going on, when the levels of pollution stubbornly refused to fall as fast as we thought they should. This is a story of corporate greed and collusion with a shocking disregard for the consequences of air pollution on communities around the world. Dieselgate, as it was known in the press, had all the elements of a rollicking good story, which made it highly newsworthy, making headlines and selling newspapers all round the world. At last, air pollution was in the limelight, getting the attention that it deserves.
The world is changing. We’ve finally woken up to the hidden cost of air pollution, and there is the interest and political will to do more to improve the air that we breathe. By 2050, I think the burden of air pollution in many parts of the world will be a lot lower than it is today. The investments in clean technology and mobility required to get us there are only conceivable because we’re now talking about air pollution over the breakfast table, voting for politicians who promise air quality improvements, and thinking about air pollution as we spend our money and live our lives.
By finally making air pollution interesting, perhaps Dieselgate did us a favour after all.
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