London’s air crisis: How can we bring about change?

Following massive public concern about the quality of the air we breathe, the Grantham Institute hosted a discussion that explored the challenges of cleaning up air in London and ways to bring about meaningful change. Abbie Stone, Media, Events and Outreach Officer, shares some of the key discussion points:

London’s air pollution has been described as a ‘crisis’ by its own residents, and despite efforts by politicians to bring in clean air zones, Londoners still breathe air that exceeds global guidelines. Imperial academics have found evidence that air pollution is linked to an increased risk of premature death, places extra financial burden on our public healthcare system and can even affect the health of unborn babies. It is clear something needs to change – why isn’t it?

Passion, so why no action?

“I want my kids to be able to go to the corner shop without risking their lives,” said Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Lecturer in Air Pollution Management at Imperial College London – a sentiment echoed by every person in the room. The passion to fight for cleaner air is abundant, but there is palpable frustration at the lack of action.

While there are some positive policies emerging, such as the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone brought forward by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the government is not showing leadership in tackling the issue at a national level. “Low emissions zones work, but only if the government is also supporting a switch to electric vehicles and investing in the public transport network,” said Andrea Lee, Senior Campaigner at Client Earth. “Currently there is not enough government support for this.”

What changes are you prepared to make for cleaner air?

Are we willing to do what’s necessary for cleaner air – even if that means significantly changing our own behaviour? “I find people live in a utopian fantasy,” said audience member Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who suffered a personal tragedy due to air pollution. “People passionately want clean air but are not willing to give up their cars or change their lifestyle to achieve this. Similarly, there are businesses that lobby government against positive changes that need to happen for clean air to be achieved. It begs the questions, do we really want clean air? Are we willing to do what’s necessary?”

Dr de Nazelle’s research group previously conducted a survey that showed that even members of the public without a car did not advocate for pedestrianizing streets because of the potential issues this would cause for drivers.

“We need to change the way we approach things,” said Dr de Nazelle. “Our streets were built for cars, but we must now create a different urban environment, one with green spaces that are both beautiful and sustainable. If we create a city that people actually want to walk or cycle through, then fewer people will drive.”

What more can universities like Imperial do to help address the capital’s air pollution crisis?

Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North and a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution spoke about the importance of collaboration between universities, government and local communities. “Currently we are building a city that supports car ownership –  all new-build housing must have parking available for residents. However, policies to counteract this are tricky to introduce. They need public support to gain traction, or else we are looking at a future with an increasing number of cars,” she said. “Politicians, citizens and scientists need to work in partnership on these issues.”

From an audience poll (pictured below), it was clear that participants felt science needs to be more integrated throughout society to have any impact on air pollution, from supporting cleantech industries, to working with communities to find local solutions, to working with governments to influence policy.

What do you think will solve the air pollution crisis?

The final discussion concluded that there is no silver bullet to solve the air pollution crisis. One participant summed up the conversation, saying there is no such thing as a single solution because ‘everything is connected’. “Government policy is influenced by public opinion and behaviour. If we want to affect change, we need to start by increasing awareness of air pollution and its risks,” he said. “The solutions will follow.”

This event formed part of the Green GB Week celebrations and the Greenovate Imperial Lates. The panel of speakers included Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North and a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air PollutionDr Audrey de Nazelle, Lecturer in Air Pollution Management at Imperial College London; Michael Kasimatis, Chief Operating Officer of BlakBear; and Andrea Lee, Senior Campaigner at Client Earth. The discussion will be used to inform and guide Imperial’s Air Pollution Network as researchers focus their work and align it with public opinion to bring about change.