Hazy view of City of London seen from Canary Wharf

UK could meet WHO air pollution targets by 2030 with planned policies

Image credit: Wei Huang/Dreamstime

The UK could meet the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) targets for air pollution by 2030 if the government were to deliver fully on environmental policies, a new report suggests.

The study, commissioned by the Clean Air Fund and carried out by researchers from Imperial College London, found that levels of airborne particle pollution known as PM2.5 could fall to within recommended interim limits for most of the country by the end of the decade.

According to campaigners, such policies would be a “win, win, win”, delivering benefits for health ranging from cutting infant deaths to reducing coronary heart disease, as well as for the economy and reducing climate emissions.

The report said it only requires existing or planned environmental, transport and clean air policies to be delivered, such as regulations on industrial emissions, vehicle standards and burning wood and coal.

Recommendations by the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on switching to cleaner transport such as electric cars also need to be implemented, the report added.

Children across the UK would suffer an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year, there would be 3,000 fewer cases of coronary heart disease and it would add nine to 10 weeks onto average life expectancy for those born in 2018, according to the research.

The report estimates the move could deliver £380bn in economic benefits over the next century to 2134, due to improved health, fewer premature deaths and greater productivity, more than justifying the £3.3bn annual costs to implement.

The report also found that even London could dramatically reduce the city’s exposure to PM2.5 if the mayor Sadiq Khan were to implement his plans to tackle air pollution.

In 2021, WHO reduced the guideline limit for PM2.5 from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, known as WHO-10, to 5 micrograms per cubic metre, with WHO-10 now an “interim target” for countries struggling with high air pollution.

The UK’s current target is 20 micrograms per cubic metre for fine particulate matter, but the agency aims to set a new target later this year.

Campaigners are urging the Government to adopt the WHO-10 limit as a legal target to be met by 2030 at the latest, as well as committing to implementing policies that will ensure the UK meets the goal and provide city authorities such as London with funding and powers to tackle local air pollution.

Jane Burston, executive director at the Clean Air Fund said: “This new research shows us that achieving much healthier air is possible across most of the UK by 2030 based on policies the Government already plans to implement or that have been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change.

“The new air quality target for the UK should therefore align with WHO-10 at a minimum, with a view to further reducing pollution beyond this in the future. It is necessary, beneficial and achievable and will save lives and money.”

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesperson said: “Air pollution at a national level continues to reduce significantly, with nitrogen oxide levels down by 44 per cent and PM2.5 down 18 per cent since 2010.

“To continue to drive forward tangible and long-lasting improvements to air quality, we are committed to setting stretching and ambitious targets on air quality through our Environment Act.”

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