Air quality issues are closer to home than we think

As Usain Bolt cleared his mind on the starting blocks for the 100 metres on Saturday,  it is unlikely that he questioned whether there is enough oxygen in the air available to complete the race. Funnily enough, this is arguably the most important factor as he is going to need a lot of it – over 30% more of it than us mere mortals.

Air quality is in global news nearly every day at the moment ranging in scale from local air quality to the wide global impacts of greenhouse gases, although ultimately the scale of all of the air quality issues reported is global – local pollution accumulates to contribute to global change.


I think this last point is helpful for driving the change in behaviour and public pressure needed to tackle the global impacts of poor air quality. A case for change made on global impact can have limited affect if people consider this to be too remote. Impacts which closer to home strike harder.


CIWEM is a signatory to the ‘Campaign for a new Clean Air Act’. This partnership includes Client Earth and together we are appealing to UK Government, including the Health Select Committee, to re-launch scrutiny of plans to tackle air pollution in UK towns and cities. Our role is to translate the growing public demand for political action by governments into a narrative that compels change and guides the form of this change. Whilst this is a specific effort in the UK; the concern, demand and need for action is similar in local environments all around the world and we would like to mobilise our members in the 99 countries where we have a presence. That is why we are launching an appeal for people to join our air, and other technical panels.

The UK Government is currently preparing air quality plans for reducing illegal and harmful levels of air pollution. We are concerned that these plans are weak and incoherent and they pass the responsibility to local authorities that are already under major pressure.


It is essential that these plans address all levels that are deemed ‘harmful’. The focus to date on city air quality has been on the reduction of nitrogen dioxide, which in many places in the UK are above legal levels. However, levels of particulate matter (PM) are not above legal limits (although they do breach World Health Organisation safety guidelines) and this seems to be largely overlooked. Plans to end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and promote electric cars will ultimately cut NO2 but electric cars will still produce particulate matter from brake and tyre wear, as well as road abrasion.

Client Earth lawyer Anna Heslop has summed the situation up nicely:  “What we need, and what the government has so far failed to deliver, is a comprehensive plan to bring down air pollution in the UK.”


Obviously it is important that plans are comprehensive and coherent so that harmful factors like PM are not missed but I think there is also a more subtle but crucial issue here. Improvement of air quality requires behavioral change, amongst other things.


If we fail to communicate the full picture and are unclear about our plans, we greatly undermine the opportunity for change.