It’s time we started talking about zero air emissions. Reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is a very good thing – it will save the planet and us with it. Reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions is also a good thing – it will stop millions of people around the world from dying prematurely as a result of poor air quality. So why not focus on the solutions that reduce both forms of pollution, as they often come from the same source?
I know that there is a risk of confusion in taking this approach. I spent much of the noughties trying to untangle the minds of journalists who mixed up CO2 and NO2. Climate change was the big problem, while air pollution was the localised, but more immediate issue. Put simply, if you lived in the wrong bit of town the pollution would kill you before climate change started to have a major impact.
That is no longer a valid way of looking at things. Climate breakdown is seen as far more urgent, as the impacts have become ever more apparent. Air pollution is also seen as more serious and widespread, as the weight of medical evidence has given substance to the chemical smog of particulates and oxides.
Climate change is still humanity’s priority; it causes drought, flooding, deforestation, homelessness and extinction of animal and plant species, resulting in famine and disease. However, atmospheric pollution causes six million deaths a year worldwide and a quarter of lung cancer cases, heart attacks and strokes, representing 0.3 per cent of global GDP in health costs, as well as reducing productivity at work.
One can’t be neglected while we deal with the other. That was the mistake made with the tax incentives designed to encourage drivers to switch from petrol to diesel. A mistake that London is trying to rapidly reverse with the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone that comes down hard on diesel vehicles.
Our fossil fuel energy system is the main link between air pollution and climate breakdown
Our fossil fuel energy system is the main link between air pollution and climate breakdown. The more oil, coal and gas we leave undisturbed in the ground, the less likely we are to breathe in poisoned air, or to trigger irreversible climate catastrophe.
The most direct solution doesn’t involve any technical innovation, or revolution in engineering; we simply need to reduce how much we use. Whether it is using our cars, or flights, we can cut down or switch to other options. Of course, to make these individual choices viable, the government has to provide the infrastructure that supports public transport, walking and cycling. There should never be a journey where public transport is more expensive than the corresponding car journey and no form of public transport should be more polluting (per passenger) than a car journey.
The government can also stop making things much much worse by not supporting fracking, and not expanding Heathrow. A bigger Heathrow is really bad for the climate, but also extremely unhealthy for the people living in a region dominated by the fumes from airplanes lifting off, or vehicles driving to the airport. If this London Mayor and the next remain on track to rapidly reduce pollution, then an expanded Heathrow is likely to be the most polluted place in the country by the time it’s built. In terms of climate change emissions, it will be the single most polluting project this country has ever undertaken.
By the time it's built, an expanded Heathrow will be the single most polluting project this country has ever undertaken
We can make individual choices to invest in renewables for our home and to switch from being energy consumers to net producers, but this also requires the government to make good choices that will make the change easier. Instead, we have a succession of Conservative Ministers pulling the rug from under the onshore wind and solar power industries, while spending billions of pounds subsidising fossil fuels.
The long-awaited electric vehicle revolution is another failure of joined up thinking by government. Electric vehicles undoubtedly improve air quality, as they are zero emission at the point of use, but if they are being charged-up with fossil fuels, then the benefits to climate change are much less. So why hasn’t government made it a requirement that all public and commercial electric vehicle charging points should use non-nuclear renewables?
The solutions to climate change and air pollution are often the same, based upon the introduction of a more sustainable energy model: energy efficiency, more renewable energy and less resource consumption. We need a zero air emissions plan that brings these different goals together.