New World Health Organization Guidelines – time to act 

Cllr Adam Harrison, Cabinet member for a sustainable Camden explains what the new World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution guidelines mean in practice. 

The Guidelines were revised to reflect the ever-mounting evidence showing the serious impact upon our health resulting from exposure to air pollution, and the WHO has encouraged all countries to work towards the new recommended levels and for decision-makers to use the Guidelines as a tool to steer their legislation and policies. 

The previous WHO Guidelines from 2005 were already much stricter for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) than the UK legal limits for this type of pollution (10µg/m3 compared to 25µg/m3), and the new WHO Guidelines are even tighter, at 5µg/m3 as an annual mean limit. The new Guidelines also represent a huge reduction in annual mean NO2 compared to the UK legal limit; 10µg/m3 compared to 40µg/m3 permitted by current legislation. 

The WHO estimates that 80% of global deaths relating to PM2.5 could be avoided if current air pollution levels were reduced to the new Guideline level. A 2020 analysis by CBI Economics estimated that achieving even the former WHO standards would avoid 17,000 premature deaths from respiratory diseases each year in the UK while bringing an economic benefit of £1.6bn annually. 

Camden Lock signage

With the preeminent global voice on air quality and health calling for the adoption of ambitious new air pollution limits, and the world’s attention focused on the UK this November for COP26, we now have an incredible opportunity to show global leadership in committing to the health of current and future generations by writing the new WHO Guidelines into law in the UK, including as a minimum a commitment to achieving the former WHO Guideline of 10µg/m3 by 2030. 

Achieving the new WHO Guidelines will be enormously challenging – comparable to the challenge of meeting net-zero carbon – but at this critical stage, there is neither the time nor the justification for a lack of ambition. With each day that passes the need for a decisive and collective international response becomes increasingly and perilously overdue. 

Indeed, many of the actions that we must take collectively and individually to avert a climate crisis are the same steps that will help to drive down air pollution and the intolerable cost the air quality health crisis places on our wellbeing and the economy. 

At the same time, the impact of climate change on air quality will be significant. Longer pollen seasons worsened ground-level ozone pollution, and particulate pollution incidents from wildfire smoke will pose a serious risk for respiratory health. Clearly, we must view the climate and air quality health crises in tandem and set our ambitions accordingly. 

Local action 

Meanwhile, we continue to do all we can with the resources available to us to reduce air pollution and pollution exposure in Camden: by working in partnership with businesses, communities and schools to support local action; by providing clean power supplies for canal boaters, ice cream vendors and electric vehicles; by improving cycling, walking and sustainable travel infrastructure; by working with hospitals and NHS partners to increase public knowledge about the health risks from pollution exposure both outdoors and inside buildings; and by raising awareness of the significant and avoidable impact of activities like wood-burning, bonfires and vehicle engine idling on urban air quality and health. 

This article first appeared in the November Air Quality News Magazine, click here to view. 


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2 years ago

Excellent. Where you say “we must view the climate and air quality health crises in tandem and set our ambitions accordingly”, that suggests biomass pellet burning to generate electricity ought to stop. Because it releases CO2 as well as fine particulates, as all wood burning does. The claim that wood burning is necessarily sustainable and low carbon is in doubt now. Is it right that Drax in Yorkshire will stop burning biomass in 2027 or is that just the date when it is due to stop receiving all those millions in financial subsidies from the UK government? Sounds like burnng money to me! Same with unnecessary domestic (purchased) log stoves, of course, but on a much smaller scale.

2 years ago
Reply to  Chris

@Chris, Spot on. Drax is the UK’s leading single location emitter of CO2 and a leading emitter of a number of air pollutants.  Its flue-gas chimneys are designed to disperse air pollution from coal, not woody biomass, in order to meet standards laxer than they now are. When its primary form of subsidy is withdrawn (2027), Drax will probably cease being commercially viable – unless electricity prices are much higher than they currently are (which would depress demand). The central issue is the very long-lasting greenhouse effect which burning carbon causes, not the much shorter time it would take trees to sequester the CO2 emitted – if they actually grow to maturity and, crucially, do not sequester emissions from other sources first! The time needed for sequestration is longer than the time available.

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