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Huge benefits to UK if WHO air quality standards are met, report says

New research suggests that UK adherence to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidance on air quality could lead to 17,000 less premature deaths each year in addition to benefitting the economy by £1.6 billion. The Clean Air Fund, a non-profit initiative launched in 2019 to improve air quality, commissioned the report from the Confederation British Industry’s (CBI) economic analysts.

The WHO has set an international target of reducing the number of deaths from air pollution by two-thirds by 2030. To do so, they established nine measurements and of the seven assessed in the CBI research, only one is being met. In 2019, the UK government set out its Clean Air Strategy. This has not yet been incorporated into an Environment Bill.

The Environment Bill is expected to be tabled this autumn and the Department for Farming, Environment and Rural Affairs said in August that they will develop monitored targets aimed at an array of environmental targets. The new research from the CBI shows that the targets in the Clean Air Strategy are lower than those of the WHO. If the WHO guidelines were adopted and reached, 17,000 premature deaths among people of working age could be prevented.

The benefit to businesses would be significant with 3 million less days being lost to illness or child care needed due to air pollution. Workers would benefit from £0.9 billion increased wages as a result. This would translate into a £1.6 billion boost to the economy in addition to reducing pressure on the NHS and social care budgets.

The Covid-19 pandemic makes this report particularly timely. During the lockdown caused by the pandemic, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) fell by between 20% and 30% across cities. These findings highlight why, according to the CBI’s chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith, “a focus on the green recovery should be central to our Covid-19 response”.

The CBI have been advocates of enabling low-carbon solutions to change the UK approach to work and travel and this report also highlights the potential economic gains to individual cities of adopting the WHO guidelines are touched upon in the report: London could benefit to the tune of £500 million with Manchester and Birmingham set to generate over £25 million extra each.


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