Joseph Carter on what needs to change so that we can breathe clean air with healthy lungs
The arguments around the need to take urgent action to clean up the air we breathe have – broadly – been won. In large part thanks to legal action brought on the UK and Welsh Governments by ClientEarth, action is now being taken on a national and local level to take real action to clean up the air we breathe.
Two local authorities in Wales – Cardiff and Caerphilly – were instructed by Welsh Government to undertake feasibility studies to identify the measures which would achieve compliance with EU air quality limits in the shortest possible time.
Cardiff Council recently announced a £32m package to tackle poor air quality in the city – a welcome step forward. The package of measures will take into account public transport, active travel, and vehicle movements in the city centre; measures that organisations have been calling on Welsh Government and Local Authorities to urgently adopt.
Coming days after Public Health England published its air pollution evidence review stating traffic management interventions, such as road pricing and access restrictions have the greatest potential to drive improvements in air quality and public health, the absence of a Clean Air Zone in Cardiff’s plans is striking. The review goes on to say that “active travel interventions at a limited scale do not generally improve air quality significantly” and urges caution on the lack of evidence regarding the Particulate Matter emissions from LEVs.
However, this isn’t surprising.
The lack of robust, accurate data on actual human exposure to toxic air and a narrow focus on compliance drives outcomes that, whilst are welcome, risk failing to drive necessary improvements in public health and protect us from dangerous levels of air pollution.
Did you know that:
- the main source of air pollution in Cardiff is road transport?
- 1,542 lost life years can be associated with exposure to air pollution in Cardiff every year?
- the equivalent of over 220 deaths each year in the Cardiff and Vale area can be attributed to nitrogen dioxide air pollution?
- More than half of Cardiff’s GP surgeries – 26 surgeries – are located in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed WHO limits?
- Two hospitals in Cardiff – Cardiff Royal Infirmary and St David’s Community Hospital – are located in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed WHO limits?
The evidence speaks for itself and where public health comes second to compliance with EU regulation or, worse, political favour we risk continuing to expose children, expectant mothers, and those people living with a chronic health condition to toxic fumes.
Are Clean Air Zones in Wales a dead duck? The Welsh Government have made air pollution a priority with Mark Drakeford AM promising a Clean Air Act by 2021. A Clean Air Plan will be published later this year and Clean Air Zones have been recommended by officials as a key way of tackling air pollution.
So what next? There are three steps that should now be taken forward.
1. Welsh Government needs the powers to direct local authorities to develop a network of charging Clean Air Zones across our most polluted towns and cities, changing our relationship with private vehicles and reclaiming towns and cities for people.
An effective CAZ would:
- Meet local needs, identifying the biggest local polluters, and discourage their use via financial charges. Private vehicles must form part of a CAZ, due to their contribution to air pollution.
- Support a long-term reduction in private vehicle use, promoting behavioural change for people to switch to public transport and active travel.
- Only include clean, zero emission public transport, with buses used prior to the introduction of CAZs to be retrofitted or scrapped.
- Where possible, measure real-world emissions using cameras or sensors, rather than capturing licence plates, limiting reliance on manufacturer tests where real-world tests are not available.
- Include traffic flow schemes and enforce anti-idling schemes in pollution hotspots
- Cover a large enough area to produce measurably lower emissions, and include public services (hospitals, schools, care homes) used by people most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution.
- Be evidence-based, with measurable targets to improve health outcomes.
- Either exempt blue badge holders and people who are exempt from vehicle tax for mobility reasons or extend the time for these groups to replace their vehicle before charging.
- Be fair, acknowledging that the poorest tend to pollute less while being more exposed to pollution. A CAZ should be designed to support all citizens to make less-polluting travel choices and be accompanied by whatever measures are necessary to address potential inequity.
2. A review of the Local Air Quality Management regime should be undertaken in Wales, with a view to moving away from managing localised air pollution ‘hotspots’ in isolation to a population-level, prevention-focused approach.
If our efforts to tackle air pollution are to deliver meaningful positive public health change, we need to rethink our current approach of managing localised air pollution problems in isolation. Evidence suggests that air pollution, poor health and deprivation stressors can combine as a ‘triple jeopardy’ to disproportionately affect high-risk population groups. We need a new public health-driven approach to risk assessment which places air quality in a broader context, encourages policy and practice integration and helps create opportunities for more effective, efficient and collaborative ways of working. Doing so can inform universal action to reduce air pollution risks for everyone, and enhanced targeted action to address specific problems in communities where air quality and/or public health is poorest
3. Invest in an expansion of enhanced air pollution monitoring in our towns and cities and expedite plans for a national Independent Monitoring & Assessment Network
Not only do we need to significantly increase the level of monitoring across our towns and cities, but we need to make better use of the data available to us. A national network would ensure that government and local councils have the necessary information available to them to take the most effective action to achieve the greatest outcome.
Air pollution is a silent killer and we need to do more so we can achieve our aspiration that one day we will all be able to breathe clean air with healthy lungs.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons