The politics of air pollution

One of the key debates in the upcoming London mayoral election is around air quality. All the main candidates have recognised the huge challenge it presents and set out policies to tackle it. A recent YouGov poll showed that almost seven in every ten parents in London are worried about the impact of air pollution on their children’s health. Moreover, a survey published this week by Westminster City Council has found that air quality ranks as voters’ top concern, joint with homelessness. Policies on air quality therefore could help decide which way Londoners vote in May.

The centre-right has a strong track record on this issue. It was a Conservative government that, in response to the Great London Smog of 1952, passed the Clean Air Act 1956. Under this legislation, dark smoke from chimneys was banned, smoke-free zones were established, and polluting factories were banished from urban centres.

There are two challenges for policy-makers on the centre-right today. First, how to address the air quality challenges of the twenty-first century. Second, how to persuade the public that such actions are necessary.  

Potential solutions

In our Green and responsible conservatism report last year, we recommended that the Government fix a date for the phasing out of coal-fired power stations. There is a broad consensus that, by phasing coal out of the power system, the Government is taking a big step towards cleaner air. 

Earlier this year, Policy Exchange and KCL published a report, proposing some London-specific solutions. The authors call for the cleaning up of the taxi and bus fleets, a boiler scrappage scheme, and more stringent low emission zones. For them, the central policy failure has been the incentivising of diesel cars, increasing the total proportion of diesel cars from 7% in 1994 to 36% today. Though intended to decrease carbon emissions, encouraging diesel has in fact seen a surge in emissions of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants. A diesel scrappage scheme, changes to vehicle taxation rates, and changes to EU emission standards are among their policy ideas to reverse the increase in diesel usage.

There is no shortage of policy ideas to tackle this issue. But they can be controversial, especially if they increase congestion and costs for motorists. So the second challenge is to persuade the general public that such measures are necessary.

Political narrative

The economic impact of air pollution is difficult to measure, but there have been attempts to do so. KCL produced a report last year, which attempted to quantify the effects of particulates and nitrogen dioxide in London. It found that a total of 140,743 life years were lost in 2010, the equivalent to around 9,416 deaths. They estimate the total cost to the economy as being between £1.4 billion to £3.7 billion.

But it seems that the health consequences of air pollution, rather than the economic consequences, are better understood by voters. Climate Outreach’s latest study on how to communicate with the centre-right about climate change found that narratives around health and quality of life were among the more persuasive messages that they tested. Moreover, healthcare professionals tend to be more trusted messengers than environmentalists. When calling for new policies, therefore, policymakers might gain greater support if they emphasise the arguments around health.

Certainly, the medical evidence linking emissions and poor health outcomes is well established. The body that advises the government, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, has examined the literature on this issue. It has found a strong connection between both nitrogen dioxide and particulates and various health conditions.

Air pollution has been linked to increases in deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and from lung cancer. The evidence has been compiled in a recent report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health. They draw particular attention to the damage caused to foetuses and infants, with a growing base of research showing its adverse effects on growth, intelligence, asthma, and development of the brain and coordination. They also highlight that harmful emissions can even be found indoors, for instance, from faulty heating and cooking appliances.

Last year’s Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change highlights air pollution as one of the most damaging legacies of climate change. Indeed, to enhance air quality, they call on governments around the world to phase out coal-fired power stations. In Britain, the newly launched UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, comprised of leading healthcare professionals, is seeking to raise the profile of the health risks associated with climate change. They identify air pollution as one of the central health challenges of climate change and they urge the Health Secretary to champion the Government’s coal phase-out policy.  

When calling for the phase-out of coal last year, we argued that one of the benefits of this would be improved health outcomes. This is now Government policy. Successful green policies might need to have health concerns at their heart.