Coming up for air

It’s no silver lining but the pandemic has at least led to an improvement in air quality. It’s up to us to keep the pressure on politicians to ensure the life-saving benefits are made permanent

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In the first half of this year, the impossible happened. The sources of air pollution – widely seen as an inevitable side-effect of modern life – were switched off. Social media flooded with images of previously polluted cities, from LA to Milan, suddenly enjoying blue skies and clean air.

The Indian capital Delhi – frequently top of the world’s most polluted city chart – saw a 60 per cent reduction in particulate pollution (PM2.5) from March to April, compared to the same period in 2019. When I visited Delhi in 2017, the smog was so bad that the street dogs were dying.

In the UK, too, the change was dramatic. The Yorkshire Post reported in April that levels of NO2 – nitrogen dioxide, responsible for some 71,000 deaths in Europe every year – were down by as much as 48 per cent in Leeds, 45 per cent in Newcastle and 39 per cent in Manchester.

This didn’t just make for a pleasant walk with the dog; it was life-saving. The reduction in pollutants during the coronavirus lockdown resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution in Europe during April alone, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. As a respiratory virus, Covid-19 is more deadly in areas of higher air pollution; clean air became an important line of defence. We also collectively used less electricity and emitted less CO2.

“People have noticed significant changes during lockdown and they know a better life is possible.”

When I began to research air pollution for my book Clearing The Air, I presumed it was an industrial problem, caused by factories far away from residential neighbourhoods. In fact, I soon learned that most pollution is hyper-local. Within our cities, over 80 per cent of NO2 comes from vehicle exhausts on the roads and 75 per cent of PM2.5 from traffic and non-road vehicles. Much of the rest is topped up by domestic log burners and gas boilers. We have been, in effect, poisoning ourselves.

Which begs the question – do we want to go back to dirty air, poor health and high carbon emissions? Or do we want to maintain the recent cleaner air gains and move toward a net zero carbon economy (which, by the way, the UK government is legally required to do by 2050)?

Cities in the north are leading this agenda. In Greater Manchester, pre-lockdown, a third of all journeys under 1km were made by car, causing congestion that costs the city £1.3 billion annually. That’s why former Olympic cyclist and now cycling and walking commissioner for Greater Manchester Chris Boardman began building the Bee Network: the most comprehensive urban cycling and walking (collectively known as active travel) network in Britain, eventually covering 1,800 miles. Greater Manchester also has an ambitious target of becoming zero-carbon by 2038, some 12 years before the rest of England (and seven years before Scotland).

“If we don’t take steps to enable people to keep traveling actively, we risk a huge spike in car use as [coronavirus lockdown] measures are eased,” Boardman has warned. “Not only is it the right thing to do to protect people now, but it’s vital to meet our clean air goals and protect our NHS long term.” During lockdown, cycling in Greater Manchester went up by 34 per cent and cycling and walking trips rose to 33 per cent of all journeys – gains that Boardman hopes to make permanent.

In Liverpool too, the metro mayor Steve Rotheram began a network of 600km of walking and cycling routes in 2019; during lockdown he pledged a further £30.7m to the project, saying: “Instead of just jumping back in our cars, we are asking people to keep cycling or walking.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives forever. It continues to be an unimaginable tragedy. Families and friends have lost loved ones long before their time, many unable to visit in hospital or attend the funeral. A few weeks of quieter roads is no silver lining or recompense for this.

But it did give us a chance to rethink. We already knew that burning carbon-rich fossil fuels was causing a climate crisis, yet – despite the historic 2015 Paris Agreement to change course – emissions continued to rise. We knew that outdoor air pollution kills over four million people worldwide annually and 40,000 people in the UK, yet despite knowing the biggest culprit – petrol and diesel fumes – we’ve seen little change in road congestion. We even had the technology to work from home yet continued to put ourselves through the ordeal of long commutes.

We knew what we needed to do – we were just too busy to stop. Our daily lives kept plodding along the same well-trodden paths. Now, we’ve been given a glimpse of the clean air future. When I interviewed Manchester mayor Andy Burnham for my book in 2018, cycling was in the low single figures for road journeys – I never imagined this reaching over 30 per cent within a decade, let alone two years, nor of NO2 plunging by 40 per cent. Over 1.3 million Brits bought a bike during the lockdown. Employers changed long-held stances on office-based work and are now embracing the benefit of flexible hours and homeworking. There has even been a direct improvement in solar energy, as clearer skies have boosted solar generation by as much as 25 per cent.

A recent YouGov poll revealed that only 9 per cent of Brits want life to return to “normal” after the lockdown. There is a hunger for radical change. A review part-authored by Bill Grimsey, former CEO of home improvement company Wickes, and Neil Schneider, former chief executive of Stockton-on-Tees Unitary Council, argues: “People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown and they know a better life is possible.” They call for councils to “recognise that towns and cities must no longer be designed around the car and begin a major shift in planning and design to reflect this”. The New Economics Foundation argues that a green stimulus that includes walking, cycling, and bus infrastructure, plus electric vehicle-charging infrastructure, would create 44,000 jobs in those sectors by the end of 2021.

There’s a lot we can do as individuals too. According to Oxford University research, swapping one in four car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save over £1.1 billion in healthcare costs a year. Instead of clapping once a week we could give back to the NHS by ditching a car journey.

Even Boris Johnson is starting to use this language. In a speech delivered in Dudley at the end of June, the prime minister announced plans for “better roads, better rail… unlocking the central Manchester bottleneck that delays services across the north; 4,000 brand new zero carbon buses [and] a massive new plan for cycleways across the country”.

This is welcome rhetoric. But we have heard welcome rhetoric before. To wrestle #BuildBackBetter out of the tweeting hands of populists, we have to be very precise about what we need and when. We need a Manchester-style Bee Network plan for every town and city. We need fair recompense for car users via scrappage schemes or innovations such as Coventry’s mobility credits pilot where residents can exchange polluting cars for credits towards bikes, public transport and car clubs. We need the clean air charging zones in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester (following London’s highly successful ultra-low emission zone, which led to a 44 per cent decrease in NO2 levels) up and running and introduced in all major cities. We need to help struggling local businesses and high streets: cycling and pedestrianisation schemes increase footfall in shops by
30 per cent and spending five-fold. We need electric buses to replace diesel fleets. Most importantly, we need fewer children dying or having permanently stunted lungs due to urban traffic pollution. And when do we need it? Now.

This is up to us. Don’t let your local politicians shirk their responsibility: demand plans and timeframes for action. If we don’t, then a grim winter awaits – one with no safe active
transport options, car usage above pre-Covid-19 levels as people fear contagion on public transport, and a house-bound population burning more carcinogenic solid fuels at home. You can almost see the smog cloud looming on the horizon. Or we take this moment to act with the urgency it requires and end the age of air pollution once and for all. We may never get such a chance again.

Clearing The Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution by Tim Smedley is available in paperback and audiobook (Bloomsbury)

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