by Larissa Lockwood, Director of Clean Air
2 min read
Today the World Health Organisation revised their air quality guidelines. Based on an improved understanding of the devastating impacts air pollution has on human health, they have halved the guideline for particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution and quartered the guideline for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution.
This is huge. This means we have to fundamentally change the way we live our lives if we are to protect public health from air pollution. For air pollution kills 7 million people around the world each year. Air pollution is carcinogenic and can cause asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, COPD and has also been linked to type 2 diabetes and dementia.
To illustrate the scale of the challenge, 88% of schools in the UK have air pollution in breach of the new NO2 guideline, and 95% are in breach of the new PM2.5 guideline. That is almost every child in the UK being educated in a location that is capable of harming their health.
This message to fundamentally change the way we live our lives is not new. It is the same as the response to climate change.
And both climate change and air pollution stem, primarily, from the same source: burning fossil fuels.
The solution is therefore the same. We have to decarbonise and depollute. That change to our lives required to tackle both crises will involve severing our dependence on coal, gas and oil.
It’s quite a liberating thought, to get rid of a dependence, and to be free to breathe clean air. For this isn’t just about changing the energy mix. Or switching vehicles from petrol to electric. We need to fundamentally change how we heat and power our homes and how we get around. We need to be free to choose whether to travel – no more unnecessary commutes. We need to be free to use our bodies to travel - getting exercise and daylight with cycling and walking as our primary mode of getting around. We need infrastructure to support this. And we need shops, schools, healthcare, recreation and other services that are within walking/cycling distance. We need an economic system that that prioritises and respects the wellbeing of people and planet above the growth of the economy.
The modellers will no doubt soon tell us exactly what needs to be done to reach these new air quality guidelines to protect public health, but one thing is for certain. It’s going to involve doing things very differently.