• Peter Allen

We need fresh air and fresh thinking


Both air pollution and climate change present serious risks to public health, but a joined-up approach to tackling these threats can reap enormous benefits as well as cutting the health burden and costs to the NHS

From A BREATH OF FRESH AIR:ADDRESSING AIR POLLUTION AND CLIMATE CHANGE TOGETHER FOR HEALTH, a report by the Health Alliance on Climate Change.

The joined up approach that it promotes recognises that a failure to address the issues of climate change and air pollution together has had disastrous consequences in the recent past.

The last Labour Government's commitment to reducing carbon emissions, as it was required to do following the Kyoto climate agreement of 1997, led it to actively promote the sale of diesel cars in the early years of this century. This was because diesel cars drove more ' miles to the gallon' and therefore emitted lower CO2 emissions . Unfortunately this was at the expense of far higher levels of air pollutants, compounded by the criminality of large motor manufacturers who deliberately disguised the extent of pollution coming out of their diesel engines. (Read more about this scandal.)

Air pollution causes tens of thousands of deaths every year in the UK.

Toxic emissions from motor vehicles, particularly diesel cars, are the principal cause of air pollution, along with emissions from coal based power stations. Whilst the latter are finally being phased out there is not yet any timetable for taking diesel vehicles off the road. The UK's health professionals are in no doubt that this is what needs to be done " A shift away from diesel vehicles is an immediate priority" says the report.

The initiative should form part of what HACC describes as a transition towards an active transport policy, involving the promotion of walking and cycling as a means of transport. This will not only reduce emissions and improve air quality but will also have the added advantages of improving health by reducing obesity,diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes, road traffic accidents and poor mental health.The total distance walked each year declined by 30% between 1995 and 2013 whilst, despite recent increases, the distance cycled in England and Wales in 2012 was just 20% of that in 1952, statistics which have " profound and dangerous implications for the health of the nation ". Improved health will impact on the cost burden of the NHS so investment in an active transport policy combined with reducing private vehicle use, diesel cars in particular, would be a definite ' win win '.

This needs to be backed up with investment in clean public transport - buses and trains run mostly on diesel.

We welcome the recent decision by Derbyshire County Council to reinstate financial support for bus services. However, not only do we need to keep our subsidised public transport services running, we urgently need new funding to convert or replace diesel-fueled buses with ones that use green energy. And we need to speed up rail electrification. Why not redirect money currently allocated to the wasteful and environmentally damaging HS2 scheme to provide public transport that serves our needs and protect our health?

An expanded and fully electrified railway service, in public hands and properly funded, carrying freight as well as passengers, would reduce traffic on the roads, including HGV lorries which largely run on diesel.

We really need to get diesel vehicles of our roads completely. I've signed the petition created by Friends of the Earth. It calls for all diesel to be off our roads by 2025, with drivers offered help to access alternatives.

Ditching diesel won't fix air pollution entirely, but it's a critical step in the fight for clean air.


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