“How prepared are you to bear the responsibility for these deaths on your shoulders? Dr Maria Neira didn’t hold back when she challenged city mayors for their failure to tackle air pollution this month.
As director of public health at the World Health Organization, she is uniquely qualified to ask the question. In fact, 99% of the world’s population today breathes toxic air, causing 13 deaths every minute. The UK is not immune to this global health crisis, as the story of a South London schoolgirl, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, tragically illustrates.
After being diagnosed with severe asthma, Ella was hospitalized more than 30 times before dying in 2013. Following her death at the age of nine, it emerged that Ella suffered from a form of asthma. asthma which made her particularly sensitive to the quality of the air she breathed. breathed. There was also a correlation between spikes in air pollution near the family home and Ella’s hospital admissions.
Eight long years after losing Ella – and following a relentless campaign by her tireless mother, Rosamund – a coroner concluded last year that toxic south London air contributed to the asthma attack that claimed the Life in Ella. It was a defining moment. Ella became the first person in the UK to list air pollution as the cause of death.
His loss was quite devastating but by no means unique. In fact, the air we breathe leads to the premature death of up to 36,000 Britons every year.
Pollution particles are a threat to public health. The toxic air in UK cities destroys our health at every stage of life: children grow up with weak lungs, adults develop cancer and the elderly face an increased risk of dementia.
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As mayors, we have a choice. We could watch from the sidelines as our streets become clogged with polluting vehicles and fill our air with poison. But instead, we choose to step in to protect public health, while helping people ensure a just transition and providing reliable, low-carbon alternatives to creating traffic jams.
London introduced its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019, expanded it last year and recently consulted on expanding it to cover the whole of Greater London. The ULEZ requires all vehicles on the streets of London to meet the strictest emissions standard applied by any major city in the world.
Thanks to this initiative, millions more Londoners are now breathing cleaner air and levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide have been cut by almost half in central London.
Next week Bristol will become the latest city to take action with the launch of its Clean Air Zone. As mayors, we know that our cities are facing a national cost of living crisis, and so we will ensure that the burden does not fall on those least able to bear it. That’s why we’re offering exemptions and financial support to the most vulnerable drivers, small businesses and charities.
Bristol has secured £42million to help residents and businesses upgrade their vehicles, along with initial exemptions until the end of March 2023 for hospital visitors and patients, disabled people and workers at low income. And thanks to the £61million scrappage scheme funded by London City Hall, more than 15,000 of the most polluting vehicles have been removed from its roads.
Limiting toxic emissions from vehicles is only part of the prescription to ensure that all of our communities enjoy clean air. London, for example, has put more than 800 zero-emission buses into service on its streets.
Meanwhile, Bristol has introduced more than 100 biogas buses to its fleet and is in the process of pedestrianizing major roads in its city centre. And through the West of England Combined Authority, a further £15m has been committed to planning an underground public transport system. It will give Bristolians the option of a real alternative to road transport, transforming the way people move around the city.
Next month will mark the 70th anniversary of The Great Smog – a catastrophic environmental and health emergency in which thousands of residents of the British capital perished. The government of the day responded by introducing the Clean Air Act. Not everyone was happy at the time, but habits had to change, and the legislation led to a dramatic drop in pollution and considerably improved the air in our country.
Our two great cities now face another air quality emergency. We continue to press the government to play its part, but also recognize our moral obligation to protect the lives and improve the health of those we represent. Everyone in Bristol, London and beyond has the right to breathe clean air. As mayors, we do not shy away from our responsibility to ensure that this happens.
[See also: Conservative Environment Network: the government must attract green investment, not deter it]