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UK struggling to meet air pollution mark

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UK struggling to meet air pollution mark
UK struggling to meet air pollution mark

UK struggling to meet air pollution mark

It’s been a decade since Ella died but Rishi Sunak still drags his heels on clean air for all

LONDON: Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was a remarkable child. Energetic, joyful, active – she loved playing sport, reading books and making music. But living close to the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south London, from the age of seven she began to develop a chest infection and persistent cough. A happy, healthy child was disabled by chronic asthma.

As her condition deteriorated, she suffered seizures and breathing problems, and was shifted from hospital to hospital. Ella died aged nine, in the early hours of 15 February 2013 – 10 years ago today.

After tireless campaigning from her mother Rosamund, including a second inquest into her death in 2020, Ella became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate in 2020. When I raised Ella’s case at prime minister’s questions two weeks ago, Rishi Sunak offered “thoughts and hearts” to Ella’s family. But in the words of Rosamund herself, being thought of on this day is nice – “but it’s not going to change anything, is it?”

And change is desperately needed. If you thought tragic cases like Ella’s were a one-off, think again. A global study has linked almost a million stillbirths a year to air pollution exposure, and it is as bad as smoking in increasing the risk of miscarriage. Long-term exposure to even relatively low levels of air pollution can cause depression and anxiety. About 300,000 lung cancer deaths globally in 2019 were attributed to air pollution. If ministers were really thinking of Ella and her family on this day, they would adopt Ella’s law. Formally known as the clean air (human rights) bill, this legislation would make clean air a human right for all. It would give parents like Rosamund, who have lost children to air pollution, the right to take legal action under UK law and the resources to make that a reality.

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It would also establish a citizens’ commission on clean air – which would review government progress towards air pollution goals annually and advise ministers to tighten them if necessary. And crucially, it would require the government to reduce levels of PM2.5, one of the most toxic pollutants, to 10 micrograms a cubic metre by 2030, rather than the current target of 2040.

This bill is going through parliament right now. And it has already, thanks to my Green colleague Jenny Jones, successfully passed through all stages in the House of Lords. But in the Commons, where I am now championing the bill, it has met roadblocks and murky misinformation.

The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, stated last week that she “would have loved” to set the PM2.5 target at 2030, as in the clean air bill, but was unable to do so as it is “unachievable”. This is not only an utterly bizarre statement, it’s also fundamentally wrong. A report by Imperial College London found that 97% of the country could reach the 10 micrograms target by 2030. The remaining 3% consists of hotspots in London that, with targeted support in the next few years, could certainly meet the requirements.

This target hasn’t been plucked from obscurity. It matches the European Commission’s proposals for 2030. The chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, the government’s own environmental watchdog, recommended a 2030 target at a session of the environmental audit committee last week. The mayor of London has long supported a 2030 target. And the World Health Organization recommended that levels of PM2.5 should not exceed the 10 micrograms a cubic metre threshold as long ago as 2005.

But Coffey’s statement raises another question. What kind of government would refuse to adopt targets on the basis that they’re too stringent, too rigorous, too beneficial for people’s health and the environment? There has been progress within this government. Michael Gove’s recent plan to adopt Awaab’s law, to tackle mouldy and damp homes and improve indoor air pollution shows that some ministers are starting to wake up to this public health crisis. But for Sunak to suggest at PMQs that his government’s measures on air pollution are “world-leading” is an outrage. Government data released this week shows that it breached its own national legal ceiling for PM2.5 in 2021. “World-lagging” would be more appropriate.

Courtesy: The Guardian

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The writer is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

 

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