UK could save £1.6bn and 17,000 deaths by improving air quality, report finds
Improving air quality in England in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines could deliver a £1.6bn benefit while preventing 17,000 premature deaths each year that are linked to air pollution.
Those are the key findings from new landmark research from the CBI’s economic analysis arm on behalf of the Clean Air Fund. The research found that £1.6bn in benefits could be added to the UK economy annually by reducing premature deaths, sickness absence from work and improving productivity.
Currently, the UK’s legal guidelines for air quality and pollution levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) are well below WHO guidelines. For microscopic PM2.5 pollution, WHO guidelines are more than twice as stringent as UK legal levels.
By adhering to the WHO guidelines – and delivering the required improvements – the UK could reap social and economic benefits. The £1.6bn annual benefit would be on top of NHS savings and social care budgets that would be improved by tending to fewer patients with conditions associated with air pollution.
One of the key figures listed in the research is the potential prevention of 17,000 premature deaths each year of people of working age across the UK, where cases of death had air pollution linked as a contributing factor. Air pollution can trigger cardiac arrests, strokes, severe asthma attacks which are contributing to some people dying almost 12 years earlier than expected, on average.
The CBI’s chief economist Rain Newton-Smith said: “The CBI is delighted to have been able to work on this important piece of research. Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address air pollution and the impact it has on human health and the environment, there’s also a striking economic rationale. That is why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on green recovery should be central to our COVID-19 response.
“From mass energy efficiency programmes to building new sustainable transport infrastructure, the green economy offers incredible opportunities for the UK. Improving air quality should be a key part of the UK’s journey to net zero. With air pollution hitting the balance sheets of businesses across the country, and cutting the earnings of their employees, cleaning up our air would help us to lead healthier and more productive lives, while delivering a green jobs boost for the economy.”
At a business level, the research found that the loss of three million working days could be prevented by meeting WHO guidelines. In addition, workers would see earnings increase by £900m collectively due to more time in work.
Efforts are being made at a regional level to respond to spiralling air pollution levels. Clean Air Zones were due to be launched in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds in 2020 but have been postponed as a result of the coronavirus until next year. Greater Manchester’s clean air plans have been delayed until 2022.
According to CBI Economics improving air quality would provide differing financial benefits for regions. Improving air quality in London would provide an economic benefit of almost £500m annually. Manchester is estimated to generate a £28m per year, while Birmingham could generate a £25m annual benefit. Improving air quality in Bristol would add £7m to the local economy each year.
Commenting on the findings, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said: “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. 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.
“We know there is still more to do. 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 Organization recommended limits, to be achieved by 2030, and to give cities the powers they need to eradicate air pollution.”
Levels of NO2, caused largely by vehicles, have exceeded legal limits in most UK cities for the last 10 years. The government has been defeated three times in court over plans to improve in this area. Air pollution is estimated to cause about 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, as noted by the Guardian.
In response, The Clean Air Fund is urging the Government to add legally binding commitments linked to WHO guidelines on air pollution. The group is calling for the Environment Bill, which is due to be debated and enshrined in Parliament in the autumn, to include said targets for 2030.
After enshrining its 2050 net-zero target in law last year, the UK Government is developing similar legally binding targets for biodiversity, air quality, water and waste. The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed that it is developing time-bound, numerical targets aimed at tackling an array of environmental issues, which will be placed into the Environment Bill.
At least one “strong and meaningful” target will be introduced for each of the four priority areas for the Bill: biodiversity, air quality, water and waste. All targets will be deadlined for the mid-to-late 2030s and will be backed up with interim targets that will not be legally binding, to help spur early progress.
The goals should be set in statute by the end of October 2022 at the latest, the Defra documents states.