By Will Singh
As climate change has risen up the political agenda, it has become clearer that environmental justice is not an abstract global issue, but something we see the real effects of here in the UK.
One of the most dangerous impacts of environmental harm here in Britain impacts the most fundamental right: the right to breathe clean air. According to data from ClientEarth, 75% of reporting zones in the UK have air quality which breaches the legal limit for air pollution, and impacts are associated not just with poorer standards of living, but rising rates of respiratory illness among children, worse health outcomes later in life, and greater risks of cancer.
Air pollution is also a huge social justice issue, as its effects are not evenly distributed. In the whole UK last year, air pollution was highest in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods. In the capital, London’s worst affected boroughs are also its most disadvantaged and it’s most likely to have high Black and Asian populations. This has led to highly inequitable outcomes, which campaigners have called “environmental racism”.
The situation is so bad that Asthma UK recommends people with asthma to check the pollution forecast before they make plans to leave the house, and change their plans if the air quality is too bad.
This makes tackling air pollution a vital issue to lobby your MP and Council on. But despite the pressing need for change, action from elected representatives has been slow. Even with the passage of a new Environment Act last year, campaigners have called it “another missed opportunity”, as there is still no legal requirement to embed World Health Organisation air quality standards by 2030.
What can we do about it?
Fortunately, there is action being taken on this. Campaigners recently argued for an expanded Clean Air Zone in Manchester, London is continuing to broaden its Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, and local councils around the country have announced plans to tackle local air pollution. Changes are being driven both by political action and passionate campaigners on the ground, such as Mums for Lungs and Choked Up, doing great work to highlight the injustices they face with unequal access to clean air.
But there is much more still to be done. In London, plans for the proposed Silvertown Tunnel could increase traffic and toxic air pollution in Newham, London’s 2nd poorest borough and home to 73% people of colour; meanwhile, some councils have already started removing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods installed during the pandemic. More action is still needed from politicians to prioritise the environment, by enforcing air quality standards, backing sustainable and affordable public transport and reducing reliance on car travel.
Your voice in the political process is essential in the pathway toward building sustainable communities. Experience tells us that clean air policies work best when they are built in partnership with local residents. The experience of Clean Air Zones and LTNs shows us that, from a democratic engagement perspective, discouraging car use without first putting in place affordable, accessible and enjoyable public transport options risks alienating public support for climate action.
Lobbying your MP on Air Quality
Tackling air pollution means enforcing strong air quality standards and getting more cars off roads. That means we need support from MPs and councils to facilitate green, cheap and easy-to-use integrated public transport, as well as active travel options like cycle lanes.
This year, the 16th of June is Clean Air Day, a great opportunity for you to have your voice heard on the demands for clean air and climate justice. You could ask your MP can take action on this issue in a whole range of different ways:
Finally, tweet your MP with the hashtag #CleanAirDay asking them to support the work of the APPG on Air Pollution, attend events in their constituency and pledge their support for further action, letting the Government know that you don’t want this to drop off the political agenda. Clean Air Day is an opportunity not only to show MPs the importance of the issue, but to bring communities and campaigners together to re-double momentum to continue our actions year-round, and year after year.
Most importantly, it is important to remember that your voice matters. Your active participation in democracy can create the response we need to the climate crisis. It is really important to keep lobbying your elected representatives to hear your experiences on this issue. If you’re not sure where to start, or you’d like our support in the process, come along to one of our training sessions or request 1-to-1 support from your local CSO.