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World Clean Air Day: why air pollution is not just an urban problem

Logo: Global Action Plan

By Larissa Lockwood, Director of Clean Air

If you ask a certain generation of urban dweller, they will tell you about dark skies and smog caused by the burning of coal. As we gaze upwards on #WorldCleanAirDay don’t be fooled that the problem is solved. Nor that air pollution is just an urban problem.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to human health. Every year across the world air pollution kills seven million people – that’s over 19,000 people each day. And this is happening in the UK too, as air pollution causes up to 36,000 annually, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering it causes. Air pollution can cause asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, COPD and has also been linked to type 2 diabetes and dementia. I think most of us know at least one person with at least one of these conditions.

Tractor ploughing a field (Richard Bell on Unsplash)
English agriculture contributes to air pollution in the countryside (Richard Bell on Unsplash)

But air pollution doesn’t just damage human health, it can also damage animal and plant health.

Evidence shows negative effects of air pollution on wild plants, trees, fungi, mosses, and lichens, with knock-on effects for wildlife and ecosystems. Nitrogenous air pollutants can damage growth, cause nitrogen loving plants to thrive outcompeting – and depleting – other species, with knock-on effects for the wildlife that depends on these species.

It may now be less visible, but air pollution is still the largest environmental health risk in the UK today.

It is also a problem in both cities and the countryside. The main sources of air pollution in the UK are vehicles (both the exhaust fumes and brake and tyre wear), domestic burning (log fires and burners), agriculture and industry. Agriculture is clearly a rural issue, people living in rural areas drive more than those in urban areas and domestic burning is more common. As we all share the air we breathe, we all have a role to play in improving the air we breathe.

Logo: Clean Air Hub

The national Clean Air Strategy 2019 sets out actions to cut ammonia emissions from agriculture targeted at the storage and spreading of manures and slurries and the use of inorganic fertilisers. But everyone can take steps to reduce our contribution to air pollution every day: cutting the use of domestic burners (where they are not a primary heating source), embracing flexible working with fewer commutes, consolidating and choosing ‘green’ deliveries. Share information and advice with stakeholders on these actions by linking to the Clean Air Hub or for more targeted advice and resources for different audiences (schools, healthcare, business) visit Action for Clean Air.

Larissa Lockwood

Cutting air pollution will also help us to tackle the climate crisis, as climate change and air pollution are two sides of the same coin. They are both problems with the burning of fossil fuels at their heart and therefore have similar solutions. But for many, air pollution is a more powerful motivator of behaviour change than the climate crisis as its impacts are more immediately personal – air pollution is damaging us and our families and friends today.

So, let’s use air pollution to get to net zero faster, and to make sure we do it in a way that is truly sustainable – good for us, good for the planet, good for blue skies.

Larissa is an air pollution and behaviour change expert, building on 20 years’ experience in the sustainability sector. She has advised government and the NHS through the Sustainable Development Commission’s Healthy Futures programme, and helped establish the NHS Sustainable Development Unit. Larissa worked on the first NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy, and has also led The Carbon Trust’s flagship public sector carbon management programmes. Larissa currently leads Global Action Plan’s clean air portfolio, working in collaboration to mobilise action to tackle air pollution, including, Clean Air Day - the UK’s largest air pollution campaign, the Clean Air Hub – the UK’s go-to public information sources on air pollution, Clean Air for Schools programme, Clean Air Hospital Framework programme, Business for Clean Air and the Clean Air Public Insights Tracker.

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