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Environmental policy is often presented as a trade-off, where negative externalities such as air pollution are treated as a cost of growth, and can therefore only be reduced at the expense of economic prosperity.
But in practice, that is not the case. As a number of cities across the UK are preparing for Clean Air Zones, it might be worth reminding that there is actually an economic rationale for tackling toxic air.
Poor air quality costs money. In 2017 alone, combined air pollution from fine particulate matter PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide NO2 has cost the NHS approximately £157 million in England. By severely affecting health, toxic air also indirectly impacts the ability to go to work and the productivity at work, and therefore harms national and local economies.
In 2012, Defra estimated that poor air quality cost a total of £2.7 billion due to its impact on worker productivity.
This suggests that huge savings can be made should air quality improve, for instance through the implementation of Clean Air Zones. While the format of these zones can vary from place to place, the basic principle is that they charge the most polluting vehicles for using the road.
Although there are few examples in the UK, there are reasons to believe that Clean Air Zones are effective. In April 2019, London launched its first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which operates in the existing central London Congestion Charge Zone. Most vehicles, including cars, must meet the new, stricter emission standards or pay a daily charge. The evaluation of the first six months of the zone highlighted a significant improvement — although part of this progress is the result of the Toxicity “T-charge” introduced in 2017, which operated on a similar principle:
Between April and October 2019, Transport for London has generated around £40 million from the ULEZ-money, which is then reinvested to clean up the bus and taxi fleet, fund scrappage schemes, and therefore improve overall air quality in the capital.
There is evidence coming from abroad, too. The Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Madrid is estimated to have generated a 32 per cent reduction in nitrogen oxides levels in 2018/19, while German LEZ have resulted in a 10 per cent reduction of PM10 levels. Similar measures implemented in Paris are expected to reduce NO2 levels by 23 per cent and PM2.5 by 17 per cent.
These encouraging results must act as an incentive for cities and towns that are still reluctant to address toxic air on the basis that they would be too costly or inefficient.
It is true, however, that cities alone cannot take action without a financial back-up from the national government. The current £220 Clean Air Fund designed to help local authorities improve air quality is insufficient given the scale of the task, especially for local governments already hit by austerity and budget cuts. Another issue for local authorities is that while they are the ones that pay for the set-up and running of the Clean Air Zones, they do not necessarily capture all of the economic benefits which derive from NHS savings.
To deal with these two separate but intertwined issues, we strongly recommend the following:
Given the number of people dying from the air they breathe, and that breathing clean air is a right, not a privilege, the moral case for action is clear.
But the economic case is convincing too, and implementing policies like Clean Air Zone makes good economic sense in places that suffer from poor air quality. Ultimately, if cities want to remain attractive places to live and to work, it is their responsibility but also in their own interest to take the lead in fighting air pollution.
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