If the government implements planned environmental, transport and clean air policies, air pollution levels could fall within the recommended interim target from the World Health Organization (WHO) across most parts of the UK by 2030.
This is according to a new study commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, and conducted by independent researchers from Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group via Imperial Projects.
‘This is a win, win, win scenario. This new research shows us that achieving much healthier air is possible across the vast majority of the UK by 2030 based on policies the government already plans to implement or that have been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The new air quality target for the UK should therefore align with WHO-10 at a minimum, with a view to further reducing pollution beyond this in the future. It is necessary, beneficial and achievable, and will save lives and money.’
Executive director at the Clean Air Fund
Implementing existing government plans by 2030 would have significant positive impacts on public health, and could lead to children across the UK suffering an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year.
The UK would also see a fall in cases of coronary heart disease of over 3,000 cases on average per year, and a rise in average life expectancy of nine to 10 weeks across those born in 2018.
In total, the health and economic benefits, including reduced pressure on the NHS and higher productivity, could be worth up to £380bn between 2018 and 2134.
‘People living in the UK have long suffered from the health effects of poor air quality. As this report demonstrates, there is no excuse for such a situation to continue. We understand the sources of air pollution that must be targeted, and we have the technologies to reduce emissions to low levels or to eliminate them completely. By grasping this knowledge and capability now, the UK government can improve our air quality and the health of people of all ages and at the same time, contribute to climate neutrality.’
PROFESSOR FRANK KELLY
Imperial’s Environmental Research Group
UK air pollution targets
The WHO guideline limit for fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 -– was updated in 2021 in light of accumulated scientific evidence on the dangers of even low levels of air pollution.
The guideline limit was reduced from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (WHO-10) to 5 micrograms per cubic metre, with WHO-10 now an ‘interim target’.
The current UK target is 20 micrograms per cubic metre – four times higher than the new WHO recommendation – and is due to be updated later this year.
‘It’s time for the government to stop dragging its heels and accept that ambitious clean air targets, set in law, are essential if we are to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Our current legal limits are unfit for purpose, at least double the limit of that set out in this report, and four times the recommended level outlined by the World Health Organization in September.
‘How many children have developed asthma, seen their symptoms worsen or been admitted to hospital because our clean air targets don’t protect them? Breathing toxic air creates new lung conditions and worsens existing ones like asthma and COPD, leading to life-threatening attacks and flare ups. 60% of people with asthma tell us that air pollution is a trigger for their symptoms; if these targets are reached, hundreds of thousands of children with asthma across the country could breathe easier. This would be life-changing for so many families and young people.
‘This report shows that we mustn’t accept anything less than meeting the World Health Organization’s guideline interim target of 10µg/m3 by 2030, with ambition to go further.’
CEO at Asthma + Lung UK