Olly Johnson is Policy Executive at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), a company that lobbies the government on behalf of the environmental sector. Currently, he is involved in EIC's working group on air quality control, which is currently lobbying and campaigning to reduce emissions. He has an MSc in Public Policy from UCL.

WEN's screening of This Changes Everything, December 2, 2015

WEN's screening of This Changes Everything, December 2, 2015

I was delighted to be attend WEN’s screening of Naomi Klein’s important and timely film This Changes Everything last week. The point that the film made so well was that the climate crisis is not just an issue that will effect impoverished people in the global South, but that rural communities and environments in familiar Western countries like Canada and Greece are also in the firing line. This is no doubt a valuable insight, but sitting in a suit in bustling East London, with a delicious mince pie to hand no less, I couldn’t quite feel the imperative that the film was trying to communicate; I still felt removed from the crisis.

To really get through to the suit-wearing, metropolitan-living, mince pie-eating cohort, there would need to be an immediacy to the effects of burning of fossil fuels that the film failed to provide for me. Despite the even minimal degree of separation between the urban-living viewer and the largely countryside-dwelling subjects, the film’s ability to effect cynical city slickers was impaired.

However, despite my formal dress sense, London postcode and proclivity for seasonal baked goods, I still feel a forthright urgency to tackle the burning of fossil fuels on a local (as well as global) basis – air quality. Air quality is said to have caused the deaths of 9,500 people in London each year – that is over five times the number of people that died of road causalities in the entire United Kingdom. Critically, it is caused by burning fossil fuels, particularly diesel vehicle engines and NRMM (machines on building sites) – two things that the city centres have in abundance.

Indeed, air quality in London is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Splashes across the front page of the Evening Standard are a weekly phenomenon, the campaign group Clean Air in London now has 26.4k Twitter followers and, in an unprecedented fashion, mayoral candidates Sadiq Khan and Boris Johnson are ever upping the rhetoric on an environmental issue – air quality. The problem then is acute, but, if I have so far failed to get your attention, I’m going to take my own advice and show why this is such a problem for the current audience – the Women’s Environmental Network.

Although little is known of the direct impact of air quality on women’s health compared to men’s and more research is clearly needed, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn intuitively. As a result of women being 10.5% more likely to develop asthma over their lifetime than men, twice as likely to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and being more susceptible to developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, the threat air quality poses in causing these diseases, on inflaming their symptoms after they are diagnosed, could be greater among women. This implies (although, I would hesitate to use the word ‘proves’; I am no epidemiologist) that women suffer higher health risks as a result of air pollution than men and could be another in a long line of social ills that disproportionately effect women.

Perhaps the better-researched tragedy of air pollution’s effect on women though, is its effect on their unborn children. One study from UCLA describes the effect of air pollution on foetuses as “a major problem”. Although more diluted than cigarette smoke, the effects of air pollution are correlated with physical abnormalities such as lower birth weight, as well as respiratory issues and even an increased likelihood of infant mortality. Perhaps more disturbing still, there is some evidence that poor air quality can have effects on children’s behaviour, and can contribute to hyperactivity, aggression and developmental delays.

Clearly there is a need to act. The government is currently oriented in favour of the long-term fix that electric vehicles promise, but that doesn’t help women and their children now. The assumption is that if we can eliminate transport emissions of harmful compounds such as Nitrogen Dioxide and particulate matter, background concentrations will be low enough to mitigate the bulk of health impacts. Of course, what this strategy overlooks is the need to address the issue as soon as possible, to act now. The Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) has recently produced a report that makes the case for short-term focused and cheaper options that can ease the transition to the endgame envisioned by the government and work quickly to allay this threat. An approach that combines these two methods is the only one that will credibly as well as rapidly clear the air.

The way to solve global environmental crises is to convince people that it directly effects them and the people they care about. Air quality is a global environmental crisis that has very similar sources as climate change. Air quality issues directly affect you; we should work together to stop them.