Man walking down business arcade

Health effects of air pollution

Can business help deliver better air quality?

30 April 2021
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4 min read

Portfolio Manager Matt Towner explores the role businesses can, and should, play in ensuring economic recovery from the pandemic and health go hand in hand.

Last week, I was heartened to read coroner Philip Barlow had called for lower UK air pollution limits in a prevention of future deaths report following the inquest into the nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah’s tragic death. But targets are meaningless without accompanying action. And while cars and solutions such as active travel get lots of attention, the important opportunity that business has to improve air quality is often missed. This consistently surprises me given a majority of air pollution emissions can be linked to the private sector.

 

Which industries can help?

Research tells us industries like aviation, agriculture and power generation are all big contributors to poor outdoor air quality. We focus on freight and construction as they are big emitters and are in part locally generated. Where we work in Lambeth and Southwark 20% of nitrogen dioxide and 10% of PM2.5 emissions can be linked to freight. Construction and plant machinery combined accounts for 50% of PM10 emissions. Activity from both freight and construction disproportionately occurs in more deprived areas, including along busy roads.

Targets are meaningless without accompanying action. And while cars and solutions such as active travel get lots of attention, the important opportunity that business has to improve air quality is often missed.

What can companies do?

The good news is many actions companies are taking to reduce carbon emissions will also lead to better air quality, since some activities which generate CO2 also produce particulate matter and NOx. Positive examples are companies upgrading vehicles and improving the fuel efficiency of their existing fleets. Recognising the health benefits of these actions is another good news story companies can tell with minimal additional effort.

However, achieving better air quality does need companies to do more as lots of activities that contribute to poor health differ from those causing climate change. Even electric vehicles generate significant particulate matter emissions` from brake and tyre wear, and so we must introduce new standards and technologies that address these emissions. Similarly, construction creates lots of harmful dust and is ripe for the application of better solutions.

 

Why act now?

We all want to build back better from COVID-19, and business has an important role to ensure economic recovery and health go hand in hand. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report highlights how action by business could positively impact on the health of groups that are most susceptible to poor air quality, including older people, disadvantaged communities, and those with health conditions – groups which were also hit hardest over the last year. Better air would be a fitting legacy to coronavirus.

There are also commercial benefits to taking action. Companies that assume a lead role on air pollution can strengthen their brand reputations, benefitting business development. They can get ahead of regulation; as awareness of air quality rises, companies can expect tougher government measures that will increase costs for big polluters. And there may also be cost savings, as Signol has demonstrated through its work saving $6.1m in fuel with Virgin Atlantic.

As a country, Britain can take a lead on new technologies, ‘building back better’ to improve health and realise a global economic opportunity.

Our plans

I’m really excited to be working with companies that recognise the need to act now to test solutions in Southwark and Lambeth and expand the boundaries of best practice. We’re partnering with logistics firm Prologis to explore the future of freight and identify how we can achieve the biggest health impact. We will develop exemplar construction sites with Stanhope on our Royal Street development around St Thomas’ Hospital, as well as other landowners such as Southwark Council to show what’s possible in improving air quality.

We will support wider changes to incentives driving companies’ behaviour, like new or better enforced regulation, planning requirements and industry certification standards. That’s why together with the Clean Air Fund we will explore a framework for companies to monitor and report air pollution emissions.

Lastly, we will back new technology to scale and reduce the costs of taking action on air quality. As a country, Britain can take a lead on new technologies, ‘building back better’ to improve health and realise a global economic opportunity.

 

Help ‘build back better’

We urge companies to start thinking about their contribution to air pollution now. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you are already doing, while taking further action can make a real difference to health and avoid needless deaths and ill health among our cities’ most vulnerable.

Do reach out if this is something you would like to discuss or partner on.