The Oxford Climate Society was honoured and pleased to have Dr Susan Bartington, Jenny Bates and Mai Jarvis for a panel on the public health effects of air pollution. With approximately 40,000 deaths, a loss of 6 months of life expectancy per person, and costs – social, economic and environmental – of £20 billion are caused by air pollution each year, it is a clear threat to public health. Furthermore, the UK is no stranger to air pollution, with London already breaching the legal limit for air pollution in February 2018, and Oxford itself being one of 10 cities to breach the limit for air pollution in 2016.
Dr Susan Barington: Clinical Research Fellow and Honorary Specialty Registrar in Public Health at the University of Birmingham.
Air pollution threatens the way we live and breathe. For example, globally, 3 billion people still cook with indoor, biomass-fuelled stoves, exposing them to harmful gases and particles – such as carbon monoxide and black carbon soot – for up to 8 hours per day. This affects women and children especially, with Nepalese women suffering from chronic lung disease at the age of 40. If policies to reduce air pollution and its debilitating public health impacts are to have any effect and further improvements, they must take a multi-dimensional approach.
Firstly, more must be done to model and quantify the effects of air pollution on public health. This is difficult because air pollutants – such as PM2.5 – do not directly cause death, and instead worsen existing health conditions, such as cancer. The latest potential advancement we currently have is distinguishing the symptoms caused by different air pollutants, such as between NO2 and PM10. Secondly, the importance of accessible, appropriate and everyday technologies are vital in reducing the health burden of air pollution, for example introducing improved cook stoves in countries such as Rwanda. Lastly, the policies themselves need to increase their impact through illustrating and opening discussions on how air pollution affects people’s enjoyment and wellbeing. This should be supplemented by reducing inequalities in healthcare and health education access, minimizing air pollution beyond necessary public services, and ensuring environmental justice standards – namely the polluter pays principle – are met.
Jenny Bates, Air Pollution Campaigner at Friends of the Earth
Instead of being portrayed and thought of as an insurmountable, long term problem, air pollution should be seen as an issue that can be readily solved in the short term. Beyond switching to cleaner fuels and reducing short term emissions, a key change that we can make in our everyday lives is making more journeys via active transport, or cycling and walking. Ideally, journeys under 5 miles could be made on bicycles, and those under 2 miles on foot. The idea that active transport exposes us to more pollutants is a misconception, with a study at Kings College London showing that drivers were exposed to more pollutants – circulating in their car cabins – compared to cyclists and pedestrians. As Oxford is a relatively walkable, bike-friendly city, we should definitely be able to do our part in switching to active transport.
In terms of how to promote tackling air pollution relative to tackling climate change, there should not be much of a difference. While people may think climate change and air pollution concern different gases, they in fact share similar sources, namely the combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. Furthermore, while air pollution is often tied to health issues at the city- and individual scales, and climate change to the global scale, both issues have impacts at multiple scales. For example, air pollution is often transmitted across regional and international boundaries, and climate change has several localized impacts such as the flooding of coastal villages. Thus, researchers and activists in the fields of air pollution and climate change have much common ground, and in turn, much to learn from one another.
Mai Jarvis, Environmental Quality Team Manager at Oxford City Council
With a record of air pollution spanning 150 locations over 50 years, a Low Emissions Zone that was the 2nd of its kind when it was first implemented, and plans for a future Zero Emissions Zone, Oxford has the potential to demonstrate a practical yet ambitious approach towards reducing air pollution. Using the example of the Low Emissions Zone, it’s main approach is through targeting buses, as they contribute 78% of pollution along St Aldates and St Clements Roads, despite only making up 50% of traffic. Switching to gas and electric buses would have been impractical because of the hefty infrastructure requirements and limited range of electric buses, and buses certainly cannot be banned from entering the City Centre. An effective solution was achieved through retrofitting buses with clean diesel engines – which have 95.5% lower NO2 emissions compared to regular buses – and using joint timetabling and ticketing to reduce bus traffic in the city. In turn, this has lead to an overall 35% decrease in NO2 emissions in the past 10 years, a major success for air pollution in Oxford.
Future opportunities for reducing air pollution in Oxford can stem from reducing deliveries to colleges, and expanding electric vehicle coverage. In terms of deliveries, all of Oxford’s colleges collectively receive 5000 deliveries per day. While the City Council is currently collaborating with the sustainability divisions under College bursaries, we can do our own part to reducing the air pollution from deliveries through simply going to local shops. In terms of electric vehicles, Oxford already has an electric car co-op with the eCar club, as well as proposals for a ‘Test Drive the Future’ program – giving people the chance to test drive electric cars, and increase public awareness and acceptance – and to increase the number of electric City Sightseeing Buses from the current fleet size of 5. Finally, with these policies the aim is to avoid granting too many exceptions, and to overcome this through pursuing public and private sector partnerships.
To conclude, air pollution is connected to us from the scale of the body to that of international policy. This multidimensional aspect of air pollution thus necessitates an equally multiscalar approach that is both qualitative and quantitative, and both policy- and practice-based. This is especially stressed by the Friends of the Earth, who are campaigning for greater accountability, and achievable, effective targets for air pollution. Furthermore, Clean Air Day on 21 June can give us all an opportunity to contribute towards pushing for these goals!
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.