I’ve worked on climate change for most of my career to date, including several years managing a team of 150 scientists at the National Physical Laboratory, working on the front-line of climate science. Whilst there, I often spoke at public science events about both climate change and air quality – and whilst people are always concerned about and interested in learning more about climate change, the topic that was most effective in getting people talking was air pollution.
That insight led to me establishing and leading the Clean Air Fund, a global philanthropic organisation focused on finding and scaling solutions to air pollution across the world.
I wasn’t walking away from climate change. Quite the opposite. The solutions to air pollution are often the same as those needed to combat climate change – renewable energy, electric mobility, more walking and cycling. But the conversation – the journey if you like – is entirely different and, for many, far easier.
It’s easier because, with air pollution, we’re closer to the impact. Our health and the health of people close to us is affected by pollution; almost everyone knows someone with asthma whose condition gets worse on bad air days. It’s also easier because we can see how quickly things could be better, especially since Covid-19. Lockdowns have shown us that it can change almost overnight.
I was genuinely delighted to be invited to speak on the clean air and Net Zero panel at UK100’s International Net Zero Local Leadership Conference in July. And I had three very simple, but important, messages to deliver.
First, we know that achieving Net Zero will deliver significant improvements in air quality.
Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group conducted an analysis into the relationship between Net Zero and air pollution and concluded that, in the long term, achieving Net Zero would likely lead to an improvement in air quality. Climate change mitigation can bring with it an improvement in human health, as well as benefits to the UK economy. It’s a win-win-win.
Second, not all Net Zero policies are good for air quality.
Take the shift from petrol to diesel vehicles, for example. Policies designed to incentivise the latter have contributed to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide breaching legal limits in many cities. Similarly, burning biomass for heat and power might be a form of renewable energy, but without the right technology it can result in high levels of particulate matter and a huge health burden.
That’s why we want to see more joined up thinking, via cross-departmental working – as we’ve seen with the introduction of the Joint Air Quality Unit (which sits across Defra and DfT).
Third, public engagement on Net Zero will be enhanced by talking about the health and economic benefits that the transition will bring about, via cleaner air.
As I noticed in my previous job, air pollution can be an easier way to start conversations about the changes we need to see to achieve Net Zero, and allow us to communicate the immediate health benefits that will be realised locally.
And the benefits aren’t limited to health. Public Health England estimates large savings for the NHS and social care if our air were cleaner. And research from the CBI has shown that there could be economic benefits to businesses as well – up to £1.6bn per year - as a result of a healthier and more productive workforce.
My colleagues and I at the Clean Air Fund look forward to continuing our work with UK100, as they support local authorities in integrating clean air considerations into Net Zero planning, to ensure a zero-carbon future is also a healthier future.
Jane Burston is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic initiative with a mission to tackle air pollution around the world. It brings together funders, researchers, policy makers and campaigners to find and scale solutions that will provide clean air for all. Watch Jane's lightning talk on the clean air and Net Zero panel at our International Net Zero Local Leadership Conference in July 2021.