How we're keeping air quality at the top of the agenda

Two years on from our groundbreaking Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, the report's working party chair Professor Stephen Holgate explains how the RCP is continuing to pressure policymakers to act. 

Since the publication of Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, the RCP has been working closely with policymakers to take forward recommendations from the report. We have been contributing to Public Health England’s work on developing a strong evidence base on the health impacts of air pollution, working with senior civil servants at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to influence the government’s upcoming clean air strategy and gave oral evidence to MPs as part of a joint select committee inquiry on air quality. We also hosted a roundtable discussion with the environment minister Therese Coffey MP and minister for public health and primary care, Steve Brine MP to mark the 2-year anniversary of our report. 

we need immediate action that will deliver health benefits in the shortest time possible, to ensure that people do not have to suffer the devastating consequences of breathing polluted air. 

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser on air quality to the RCP. 

We are pleased that in the 2 years since the report was published, politicians at local and national levels are recognising the scale of the public health crisis caused by air pollution. The government’s commitment to ban sales of diesel and petrol cars by 2040 will deliver important public health benefits in the long term. However, we need immediate action that will deliver health benefits in the shortest time possible, to ensure that people do not have to suffer the devastating consequences of breathing polluted air. 

Pockets of innovative policy and clear political will to affect change are emerging in cities across the UK. For example, the Mayor of London has made tackling air pollution a priority and the city’s Clean Air Action Plan for London introduced the ‘toxicity-charge’ for the most polluting vehicles and an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Oxford City Council aim to ban all petrol and diesels vehicles from the city centre by 2035 under plans to bring in what officials believe would be the world’s first zero-emissions zone

The government must take stronger action to disincentivise the use of the most polluting vehicles. This includes setting a UK-wide framework for the expansion of Clean Air Zones in towns and cities (including ships in docks and airports), with increased funding for their implementation and a clear mandate for charging zones in the most polluted cities. Charging zones were identified by the government’s 2017 air quality plan as the most effective way to reduce air pollution in towns and cities. The government should also urgently accelerate funding in support of the shift to zero emissions transport, implementing policies that incentivise low emission vehicles and disincentivise the use of diesel. 

The UK’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union presents both threats and opportunities to the air pollution agenda. Brexit must not be used as an opportunity to weaken laws and regulations relating to air pollution. Indeed, the RCP believes this may be an opportune moment to improve air quality standards. This should include a commitment to new and ambitious targets for reduction in air pollution based on World Health Organization guidelines. Increasing investment in active transport to at least £10 per capita and promoting safer road design and infrastructure to increase levels of walking, cycling and public transport use will go some way to tackling air pollution. This could include expansion of cycle networks; requiring cycle training at school; promoting safe and active alternatives to the ‘school run’; encouraging employers to support alternatives to commuting by car; and promoting leisure cycling. 

Brexit must not be used as an opportunity to weaken laws and regulations relating to air pollution.

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser on air quality to the RCP. 

National agencies and local authorities should be required to protect those most at risk and to reduce exposure to air pollution amongst vulnerable groups such as children, older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. This should include ensuring local authorities use powers to reduce the volume of traffic when levels are found to be dangerously high. 

The RCP has also been calling for a 
new Clean Air Act, to enshrine in law the
right to breathe clean air and uphold the government’s duty to reduce air pollution and protect people from its effects. A 2017 YouGov survey showed 65% of the British public would support a new Clean Air Act and three quarters (75%) believe the prime minister has a moral obligation to act. 

2018 will be a pivotal year for air quality policy in the UK. The government’s upcoming clean air strategy will provide further opportunities to tackle air pollution from a range of sources. Other milestones include initiatives from city mayors, such as London’s Sadiq Khan bringing forward his plans for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone, and the UK government developing proposals for a post-Brexit ‘green regulator’. The RCP will continue to campaign to make sure policymakers place health at the forefront policy-making when it comes to tackling air pollution.  

Professor Stephen Holgate is Medical Research Council clinical professor of Immunopharmacology and special adviser on air quality to the RCP.

This article appears in April's Commentary magazine.