Let’s clear the air about COP26: It failed to protect our lung health…

Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, shares her takeaways from COP26, why air pollution is a big issue in Glasgow, and what we need to do to clean up our toxic air across the UK.

At COP26, whilst world leaders were committed to discussing ways to protect our future from climate change, they failed to address the largest environmental threat to human health we face today. Welcome commitments to “phase-down” coal, cut methane and end deforestation by 2030 grabbed the headlines, but what was missing was any commitment to improve the quality of the air we all breathe.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, supported by Impact On Urban Health, spent two weeks at the conference launching a new campaign, Clear The Air. We spoke with hundreds of attendees and organisations about the link between air pollution and climate change, asking people to share their stories and take action to protect our health today, and ensure the next generation can breathe clean air tomorrow.

Toxic Glasgow

Ironically, as leaders skirted around the impact of air pollution on public health and its contribution to climate change, everyone attending COP26 was exposed to dangerous levels of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5).

Glasgow, the home of COP26, is the fourth most polluted city in the UK outside of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Furthermore, 81% of births across Scotland take place in localities with unsafe levels of PM2.5. This amounts to over 40,000 births per year. Last year, 93% of all air pollution monitoring sites across Scotland, and 90% in Glasgow, registered levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) above the new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines of 10 μg/m3.

This includes the places where those who are most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, including pregnant women, children, the elderly, people with existing lung conditions, and those on the lowest incomes, should feel safe. Over three-quarters of care homes, seven in 10 schools, and almost 80% of hospitals across Scotland are in areas surrounded by dangerously high air pollution.

It is therefore of little surprise that urban Scotland, particularly the areas around Glasgow itself, have the highest death rates from lung disease in Britain; and around 2,000 premature deaths are related to air pollution each year.

Air pollution across the UK

We see a similar picture across the UK, where air pollution is responsible for 36,000 deaths per year and has been linked to increased risk of lung disease, heart failure, strokes, dementia, and poor mental health. 75% of the country’s air quality report zones were breaching legal limits for NO2 last year, whilst 97% of the population live in areas where the levels of PM2.5 are above those recommended by the WHO.

A national scandal

This is a national scandal and no one is safe from the effects of toxic air.

At Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, we have a front-row seat to the devastation caused to people’s lungs and health from breathing dirty air. There are more than five million people with

Asthma in the UK, including 1.1 million children. Over half of these have told us that poor air quality is a trigger for their symptoms, whilst 60% of people with a lung condition have told us that they have been discouraged from leaving the house due to high levels of pollution. And of course, we saw with the tragic death of Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, that exposure to dangerous levels of pollution can have fatal consequences, triggering life-threatening asthma attacks and exacerbations.

A moral duty to level up our health

If the government is serious about leveling up health inequalities across the country, it must begin by ensuring that everyone has clean air to breathe, no matter where they are born, live, or play.

Our recent report, Clear The Air: Improving air quality to protect future generations and level up our communities, found that over 250,000 babies are born each year in heavily polluted areas. This means that one baby is born every two minutes into an area where its first breaths are toxic.

Meanwhile, 85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of pollution make up the poorest 20% of the UK population. Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester rank among the top ten areas with the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods in England and all these cities have main roads which breach legal NO2 limits.

These are also the most ethnically diverse places in the country, meaning that toxic air is more likely to have a disproportionate impact on those who are from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Delivering change

We have the knowledge, the skills, and the technology to make huge strides towards clearing the air across the UK, we just need the political will.

That begins at the top. The government has a prime opportunity to set new clean air targets into law through its Environment Act. It has committed to setting out a new concentration target and exposure reduction target for PM2.5 before the end of October 2022.

This commitment should be welcomed but it needs to be backed up by swift action to deliver a target that is ambitious and achievable. We have long been calling for a new concentration target that reduces particulate matter to the annual levels set out in the 2005 WHO guidelines and is achieved by no later than 2030. Without targets, the government remains unaccountable.

There are also measures that we can take simultaneously to reduce pollution at the regional and local level. 80% of pollution at the roadside comes from transport, stemming from both exhaust fumes as well as tyre, brake and road abrasion. This means that one of the most effective interventions is to change the way we move around our towns and cities.

Whilst COP26 did see a pledge to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 from several countries and car manufacturers worldwide, this alone will not be enough to combat pollution at the roadside.

We need more people switching away from private cars to more sustainable modes of transport, such as public transport, walking and cycling, if we are to clean up our air.

Another major part of the battle to clean up our air is educating people – health professionals, politicians and residents alike – about the dangers of air pollution. That is why we are calling for air pollution exposure reduction to be included in all training for health care professionals, alongside a national healthcare campaign.

Clearing the air together

As part of our Clear the Air campaign we will be empowering people whose lives are most impacted by air pollution up and down the country, to share their stories and have their voices heard about the improvements they want to see to air quality in their communities.

As for COP27, we hope to see air pollution and the impact climate change is having on human health, high on the agenda. Find out more at


Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Hãy làm sáng tỏ không khí về COP26: Nó đã thất bại trong việc bảo vệ sức khỏe phổi của chúng ta – VCAP
2 years ago

[…] Nguồn Air Quality News […]

2 years ago

I didn’t see any mention here of the air pollution coming from industrial and domestic combustion. Isn’t that a far greater source of PM2.5 than the particles from road-wear (tyres, brakes and surface abrasion)

2 years ago

Thanks for sharing this information.

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top