Feature: The need to intergrate climate change and air quality

Stephen Cirell, independent energy consultant and host of the Environment Journal Podcast explains why we need a joined-up approach to dealing with climate change and air quality. 

This is an important time for climate change and global warming. More so than ever before, the penny is dropping with the public that climate change is happening and something has to be urgently done about it. 

Those in the industry have been working away on this for many years. The IPCC has published five separate reports indicating the scientific basis for the concerns. Its data has helped inform much Governmental policy throughout the world. In the UK, the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed 13 years ago, legally committing the country to reach a target to reduce greenhouse gases. Last year that target was increased to carbon neutrality or net zero carbon by 2050 against a 1990 baseline. 

Under the intergovernmental conferences – where global deals are hammered out on climate change – successive meetings have raised the stakes on what needs to be done. 

Air quality is currently seen as more of a niche area. Cases such as the tragic death of Ella Adoo Kissi Debrah – the 13 year old girl from London whose death made history by being the first time that a Coroner had found that air pollution had made a material contribution to a death – have helped raise awareness, but air quality has not yet received the publicity that climate change has. As a result, there is more acceptance that climate change needs sorting out and a greater sense of urgency amongst the public. 

Over 300 local authorities in the UK have now declared a climate emergency, together with the Westminster, Holyrood and Senedd national governments. Most make clear that climate change needs urgent action and commits to taking steps towards that goal. An example might be a commitment to be net zero carbon for the Council’s own estate, vehicles and functions by 2030. 

 Such pledges are normally followed by the development of a Climate Emergency Action Plan. I have worked on many of these programmes over the past three years. These normally detail the pledge made and indicate how the energy efficiency of buildings will be improved, vehicles transferred to electric and renewable energy measures installed. However, few if any such action plans make provision for – or even mention – air quality.  

As Pippa Neill pointed out in an article in the September edition of Air Quality News magazine, climate change and air quality are intrinsically linked. There is now a greater understanding that climate change mitigation can help to reduce air pollution and clean air measures can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is not always the case.   

This point was taken up at the Northern Air Quality Conference in Manchester, where Dr Gary Fuller made the comment that some climate change measures might actually exacerbate air quality standards. 

Ironically enough, a similar issue arises with biodiversity. Some authorities have declared a climate change and biodiversity emergency, with pledges on tree planting and nature networks. If this is the case their action plans cover this vital area; most do not. Yet living within a reasonable distance of public open space has been shown to be beneficial to health and wellbeing, as well as providing a useful carbon sink. In air quality circles, it is also well known that such facilities improve air quality generally. 

So what we need is for climate emergency action to carefully weave together climate change, biodiversity and air quality policy into a holistic and comprehensive programme of action at local level. This is the only way that we can be sure the full potential of local action can be achieved. This would also give air quality a significant boost by aligning it with the most topical of the environmental challenges. 

The question is will local authorities get this right? More regulation is bound to follow in relation to air quality and so eventually it will have to be addressed more comprehensively than has been the case so far. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity in the interim was lost. 



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Jenny Hawley
Jenny Hawley
2 years ago

It’s great to see this article – weaving together climate change, biodiversity and air quality policy is critical, but not only in urban areas and for transport policy, but in rural areas too (where most of our biodiversity is found). Emissions from agriculture are often overlooked in air quality policy but they are a key driver of nitrogen & methane emissions, particulate matter formation and biodiversity loss everywhere. Plantlife’s campaign highlights the impacts of air pollution on wild plants & fungi in particular and we’re calling for a more integrated approach to climate, AQ and nature policy (see link below). We’d be pleased to talk more about this with you. Thanks, Jenny
We need to talk about Nitrogen… (

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