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Improving Air Quality Could Boost UK Economy by £1.6bn Annually

Improving Air Quality Could Boost UK Economy by £1.6bn Annually
09 September 2020

3 million working days a year are lost to air pollution under current targets, according to a report commissioned by the Clean Air Fund.

The new study, “Breathing Life into the UK Economy”, revealed that the UK economy could benefit by £1.6 billion annually by reducing premature deaths, sickness absence and lower productivity at work if the UK met the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for air pollution, which are stricter than the current UK legal limits.

The report was produced by CBI Economics on behalf of the Clean Air Fund, and shows the vital importance of securing green and healthy growth.


“I am doing everything in my power to stop Londoners breathing air so filthy that it damages children’s lungs and causes thousands of premature deaths. The Ultra Low Emission Zone has already cut toxic air by a third. We want to go further and will be expanding the ULEZ up to the North and South circular roads in 2021.”

–Sadiq Khan

Mayor of London


Reducing Pollution to WHO Levels Could Prevent 17,000 Premature Deaths Each Year


According to the report, reducing pollution to WHO levels could prevent 17,000 premature deaths each year of people of working age across the UK, who are dying nearly 12 (11.8) years earlier than expected, on average.

It was also discovered that for businesses, a loss of 3 million working days could be prevented every year from meeting the WHO’s guidelines, with workers currently becoming ill or having to take time off to care for sick children as a result of air pollution.

Workers would also benefit from increased earnings of £900m annually due to increased time in work.

The report is believed to be the first analysis of the economic benefits of reducing pollution levels such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) to what are considered safe levels. The WHO guidelines for PM2.5 (a form of microscopic pollution) are more than twice as stringent as UK legal levels (10 µg/m³ annual mean vs 25 µg/m³ annual mean).

The report finds that lowering air pollution levels to WHO guidelines could reduce premature deaths and make those skills available to the economy. In addition, workers are less likely to suffer sickness from poor air quality, which would increase their available hours for work.

The £1.6bn annual benefit to the UK economy would be on top of savings to NHS and social care budgets from treating fewer patients with health conditions associated with pollution. 

The analysis does not include potential wider benefits to the UK economy of meeting WHO air quality guidelines including preventing early retirement, the benefit to the voluntary sectors or impacts on consumer behaviour.


Meeting WHO Air Pollution Standards


The Clean Air Fund is urging the government to include a legally binding commitment to meet WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the Environment Bill, which is due to be debated in Parliament in the autumn.

This echoes calls by 16 other campaigning groups, part of the Healthy Air Campaign. Currently, the bill mentions “a target” for particulate matter (PM2.5), a particularly deadly form of pollution, but does not specify what that target will be, or when it will be met. Other pollutants, such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) are not mentioned in the Environment Bill and the target for PM2.5 will only be presented to parliament in October 2022.


“Pollution Isn’t Just a Central London Problem”


Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, commented on the research:

“I am doing everything in my power to stop Londoners breathing air so filthy that it damages children’s lungs and causes thousands of premature deaths. The Ultra Low Emission Zone has already cut toxic air by a third. We want to go further and will be expanding the ULEZ up to the North and South circular roads in 2021.

“We know there is still more to do. Pollution isn’t just a central London problem, which is why I have consistently demanded that the government match my ambition and improve the Environment Bill to include legally binding World Health Organization recommended limits, to be achieved by 2030, and to give cities the powers they need to eradicate air pollution.

“The CBI’s new report shows that cleaner air could boost the economy by £1.6 billion - we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our cities and economies to be greener, fairer, and more sustainable.”

You can access the report in full here

Picture: A photograph of the London skyline

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 09 September 2020


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