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In London, inequalities infect the air we breathe

Traffic blurs as it moves through Trafalgar Square
Traffic blurs as it moves through Trafalgar Square

Author: Andrea Lee, Clean Air Campaigns Manager, ClientEarth

In this blog post, Andrea from our grantee ClientEarth looks at how air pollution has a disproportionate impact on certain groups including those on low incomes, and how more can be done to protect Londoners this London Challenge Poverty Week.

Air pollution harms us all, cutting lives short and reducing quality of life. The vast majority of the UK still charts levels of dangerous pollutants that breach legal limits. But the burden of air pollution is not evenly shared and dirty air has a disproportionate impact on certain groups, including those on low incomes.

In London, the poorest households are facing the highest levels of exposure to harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution – which comes mostly from motor vehicles – and this actually got worse in the last 10 years.

"London’s toxic air also means poorer children in particular are not being given the best start in life."

In 2010, 433 of the capital’s 1,777 primary schools were located in areas that exceeded legal limits for NO2 pollution. Of those 433, 80% were in what are considered deprived areas.

Studies have shown that the most economically disadvantaged are often those worst affected by air pollution, particularly because they often live in less desirable locations, such as near busy roads. But they are conversely least likely to own a car or use them as much and therefore emit the least pollution. Whereas those from the least disadvantaged households can afford to live in nicer environments, have higher levels of car ownership, particularly diesels, and use their vehicles more.

"Unfortunately, COVID-19 now adds a further layer to the deadly mix of air pollution and economic inequality."

Respiratory diseases and lung conditions are known to be unevenly distributed within the population. In London, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Barking and Dagenham, residents are up to twice as likely to die from lung diseases than those in richer areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Barnet.

The UK Government's own Air Quality Expert Group suggested there was a link between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 infection. And it’s intertwined with economic status: initial studies in the UK show that some Covid-19 patients are more likely to be admitted from regions of highest air pollution, lowest housing quality and household overcrowding.

With tens of thousands of people dying early each year because of air pollution in the UK and with a virus that attacks our respiratory health looming large, urgent action to tackle toxic air is more important than ever.

Three court cases brought by our environmental lawyers at ClientEarth against the UK Government have highlighted ministers’ persistent failure to clean up the air in our towns and cities – and forced them to step up their game. It is now up to all levels of government to act as quickly as possible to reduce air pollution.

ClientEarth has been working with Healthy Air Campaign partners to push air pollution up the political agenda. This resulted in a commitment from the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to bring in the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) a year earlier than expected and expand it to the North and South Circulars next year.

The ULEZ has made great strides in reducing harmful levels of pollution, with a 37% decrease in NO2 pollution in the 3-month period before the lockdown, compared to a scenario where no ULEZ was in place. But the Mayor needs to go further to help protect the whole of Greater London.

"Children from Bromley to Brent have the right to breathe clean air."

Like all Clean Air Zones, the ULEZ needs to be paired with help and support for people and businesses to switch to cleaner forms of transport. The Mayor is already providing scrappage schemes for small businesses, charities, and low-income and disabled Londoners, but more help is needed and he can’t do it all on his own.

The government is not doing nearly enough to help those who need it the most in the shift away from dirty vehicles and towards clean air, an investment clearly worth making when you consider the impact on people’s health, the NHS and the economy. When it comes to air pollution, it would seem that the government is doing us all a disservice – and allowing the most disadvantaged to continue to be hit the hardest. Those who want to lead London need to continue to build on the ambitious measures in place and put people first.

London Challenge Poverty Week 2020