Opinion: Polly Billington on aligning clean air and net zero policies

We ‘CANZ’ and must do more to align clean air and Net Zero policies to learn from the mistakes of the past, argues Polly Billington, Chief Executive of UK100. 

Launched in 2017 as a campaign to raise awareness of and accelerate action on the air quality crisis in the UK, Clean Air Day marks its fifth anniversary this week.

Since its birth, the campaign has helped get air quality firmly on the agenda, with 82% of people believing air pollution should be a top priority in the UK and 64% choosing to walk or cycle instead of driving short distances.

One in two people has heard of Clean Air Day and understands that air pollution is linked to more than 30,000 avoidable deaths annually in the UK.

Talking about a problem that Public Health England estimates is a £2 billion a year drain on the NHS is one thing. Solving the crisis is another.

Introducing Clean Air Net Zero

UK100’s new report, Yes We CANZ: Local leaders delivering Clean Air and Net Zero, argues that any solution must acknowledge that action on air quality and the climate crisis are inexorably linked.

For the best example of the link between climate action and air pollution, let’s cast our minds back to the 1990s — not too hard, considering our fashion mistakes from the decade are back in vogue. But rather than our love affair with the bucket hat, I am talking about our love affair with diesel.

Countries across Europe heavily promoted diesel vehicles as a “climate-friendly option” owing to improved fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. But little consideration was given to the increased emissions of toxic NO₂ air pollution. 

Even before the “dieselgate” scandal blew apart the climate-friendly argument, the toxic air impacts of separating clean air and climate policies had already contributed to the deadly pollution crisis we are still trying to clean up decades later.

Clean Air Net Zero (CANZ), the concept introduced in our new report, is about learning from our past mistakes. The message at its heart is that clean air and climate policies need to be aligned.

As a network of ambitious local authorities committed to Net Zero and clean air action, our report focuses on what local and regional leaders can do to embrace the opportunities offered by a CANZ approach. 

Local leaders are the most trusted and best placed to deliver cost-effective and impactful action. That is not just our experience, it is consistently shown in reports, like the latest from the PwC, and recognised by the Government.

Ultimately, local leaders are the key because Cornwall is as distinct from Cambridgeshire as Birmingham and Leeds are different. Effective action to accelerate Net Zero while tackling the air pollution crisis should reflect that diversity.

Win-win CANZ opportunities

But that’s not to say that we don’t see the same opportunities for action across towns and cities all over the UK. In fact, Yes We CANZ: Local leaders delivering Clean Air and Net Zero identifies four key “win-win” actions that local leaders across the country can adopt to align and advance both agendas.

Win-win 1: Transport modal shift

Here, “modal shift” is a synonym for “sustainable transport planning” or encouraging more people out of their cars by promoting and improving public transport while investing in infrastructure to boost walking and cycling.

It is a win-win because, as we saw throughout the pandemic — when restrictions forced people out of their cars — reducing the number of vehicles on our roads slashes carbon emissions and primary air pollutants.

And we are already seeing local authorities adopting this CANZ approach to transport, like Birmingham City Council’s ambitious Transport Plan. Driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions, the plan also seeks to reduce health inequalities and put air quality front and centre of policy making.

Win-win 2: Energy efficiency and clean heating and cooking

While the air pollution impacts of road vehicles is firmly on the agenda, the toxic air impacts of gas cookers and boilers make fewer headlines. Yet gas-powered heating and cooking is a growing concern as effective action against road emissions increasingly exposes it as a significant and stubborn source of toxic air.

Meanwhile, fossil-fuelled heating and cooking in our homes account for more than 14% of UK carbon emissions.

Therefore, accelerating measures to cut heating demand through insulation and energy efficiency alongside switching to clean heating systems would deliver significant progress towards Net Zero and improve air quality — while reducing fuel poverty and creating green jobs.

Win-win 3: Promoting sustainable farming

Ammonia in farming contributes to both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution. Agriculture accounts for at least 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Europe-wide studies have also shown farming to be responsible for over 40% of the most dangerous air pollutants.

Local authorities, therefore, should work to encourage agricultural transition and adopt sustainable food procurement policies like Gloucestershire County Council is doing with its Gloucestershire Regenerative Environment and Agriculture Transition (GREAT) Project

In partnership with Gloucestershire Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and other local stakeholders, the project is working to accelerate the transition to more sustainable and regenerative farming practices in the county by providing advice and financial support to local farmers.

Win-win 4: Transparency 

The final win-win opportunity is about local authorities empowering local communities with better data on air quality to help them make personal choices to avoid negative impacts of air pollution.

For example, Sheffield City Council collaborated with the Better with Data Society to deliver activities designed to engage local people with air quality data by making it more accessible and easier to understand.

Better data on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions can also boost community awareness and build support for CANZ actions while supporting communities to hold local and regional leaders to account.

Gift that keeps giving

While wood is the traditional gift, on the fifth anniversary of Clean Air Day this year, CANZ is our present to local and regional leaders across the UK.

To ensure CANZ is the gift that keeps on giving, local and regional leaders need the Government to step up its ambitions on and support for local authority action on clean air and Net Zero.

What that support should look like will be on the agenda at next month’s flagship clean air and Net Zero local and regional leaders summit in Leeds, co-hosted by UK100, Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.


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