Cleaning up our polluted air will save lives
Yes, it’s an ambitious plan, but by working together we can reduce the harm caused by emissions
New year is traditionally a time when people set about changing their lives for the better. And to help the nation live more healthily, we are kick‑starting the year with a pledge to clean up the country’s air.
Our health isn’t determined only by what happens in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries. Around 30 per cent of what contributes to a healthy lifespan is the environment. Most harmful emissions are out of individuals’ control, so we have a duty to take action – and we know the biggest single environmental cause of death is air pollution.
Poor air quality harms the vulnerable most of all, but none of us is immune and the effects stay with us throughout our lives. The lungs of children whose playground is by a busy road are less developed, and air pollution leaves them more susceptible to conditions such as asthma. Equally, it can shorten the lives of elderly people, who may already suffer from an existing heart or lung condition, and hasten a decline in mental skills. Today, to protect all of us from risk, we are publishing our ambitious clean air strategy.
We are building on a record of progress. Air quality has improved significantly in recent years. Emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides, half of which come from transport, have fallen by more than a quarter since 2010. But we are determined to go further.
We’re already tackling pollution from vehicles. We’re spending
£3.5 billion on improving roadside air quality and encouraging cleaner forms of transport, such as electric vehicles. We’re supporting councils in designing bespoke measures, such as retrofitting polluting buses, to deal with local hotspots, and we’re ending the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040.
But the challenge goes wider than vehicles. The type of air pollution that causes the greatest harm to health is particulate matter. These are tiny particles that enter the lungs and blood stream and are transported around the body, harming the heart, brain and other organs. Burning coal and wood in our homes accounts for the largest proportion of emissions – followed by industry and transport. So to tackle all types of damaging air pollution, we must act across government and across the economy.
The clean air strategy, drawn up after a three‑month consultation, will support the new NHS 10‑year plan. To get the best value from the extra £20.5 billion that the Government is investing in the NHS – its biggest‑ever funding increase – we must focus more on prevention. By tackling air pollution now, we will avoid people suffering ill‑health and also avoid future financial pressures on the NHS.
The health argument, then, is crucial. But there are economic benefits, too. Cleaner air and healthier people mean fewer work days lost to illness. Our focus on air quality means world‑ leading businesses are responding in kind – investing in new technologies like electric vehicles, creating skilled UK jobs and developing expertise here.
The measures we unveil today target all major sources of pollution – transport, industry, agriculture and also our own homes. We will tackle the rising emissions of ammonia from farming, which harm plants and wildlife, and contribute to particulate matter pollution. With our support, farmers will be using cleaner equipment, such as low‑emission slurry spreaders, and we will regulate to minimise pollution from fertilisers.
To reduce particulate matter pollution from homes, we will ban the sale of the most polluting fuels, and amend smoke control laws to make it easier for councils to enforce them. We will also give the public clear information about the cleanest ways to burn domestic solid fuels.
Our target is to halve the number of people living above World Health Organisation guideline limits for particulate matter pollution by 2025 – that’s more ambitious than the EU requires. Beyond 2025, this strategy also commits us to a new long‑term target to reduce particulate matter. In the coming months, we will outline the actions necessary if we are to meet the WHO limit throughout England.
The Departments of Health and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will be working together – but this problem is not just for government to solve. That’s why we are working so closely with businesses, and also encouraging individuals to change how they heat their home, how they travel and even the cleaning products they use. Because by acting together on air quality, we can all look forward to healthier lives.