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Health effects of air pollution

Three things we learnt at COP26

29 November 2021
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5 min read

We went to COP26 as part of our 'Clear the air' campaign with Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. Here's what we learnt.

Earlier this month, we travelled to COP26 with Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. We were there as part of the Clear the air campaign, talking to the public and policymakers about the connections between air pollution and the climate crisis, and about the devastating effects poor air quality has on people’s health.  

We met with hundreds of people who are both affected by air pollution and who are working to improve air quality. The question is: what did we learn at COP26? 

1. The importance of listening

Firstly, the most important information we learned was from listening to individuals.

Air pollution is the single greatest environmental threat to health, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Children, older people, people with heart and lung conditions, and people in lower-income communities are all disproportionately affected.  

At COP26 we saw presentations that described how the climate crisis is affecting the health of millions of people. However, the most valuable information and practical guidance was found by listening to the stories of individuals. Therefore, it’s vital that decision-makers listen to these stories. As part of the Health effects of air pollution programme and Clear the air campaign, we will continue to elevate the voices of those most affected by air pollution. 

Clean air champions

Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation’s young clean air champions from across the UK joined us at COP26 to share their concerns about poor air quality. Julie Smith, a co-manager of the Unity Youth Group in Liverpool said: “Unity’s young people had a truly amazing day…As young people’s voices were being sought, our kids were treated like royalty. They were filmed, interviewed and their opinions and interaction were sought after…The event was inspirational and encouraged them to continue to campaign and look after the environment.” 

Community event

On the fringes of COP26, Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation hosted a community event in Glasgow, which featured a panel of expert speakers. Specifically, Sarah Woolnough, the Chief Executive of Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation; Monica Lennon, Member of the Scottish Parliament; city councillors from Glasgow and Birmingham, Joe Swift from the Environment Agency; clean air champions from Sustrans and UK Research and Innovation; academics from the University of Birmingham and the University of Stirling; and Julia Kovaiova and her son, who are both campaigners for Trees not Cars. 

The event was an opportunity for COP26 attendees, local people in Glasgow and clean air campaigners from across the UK to share stories and recommend strategies for improving air quality at local, national and global levels. The panel discussed how air pollution is an example of inequality in action. For instance, when talking about the need for Government to encourage more active travel, John Launder, the Deputy CEO of Sustrans, said: “A third of people in Scotland don’t have access to a car, so there’s a real social justice aspect to all this.” 

Clean air champions
Clean air champions
Community panel
Community panel

2. Levelling up means improving air quality for everyone

Secondly, improving air quality must be part of solutions to the climate crisis, and those solutions must be equitable.  

That means the policies that are part of the UK’s levelling up agenda should be stress-tested against the Government’s clean air strategy to ensure equal access to clean air, regardless of where a person is born or lives. We’ve made more recommendations for how Government can improve air quality as part of its levelling up agenda. You can read these in our joint report with Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation. 

Those most vulnerable to air pollution often contribute the least to the problem. This is a pattern that is repeated for those who are most affected by the climate crisis. Kieron Boyle, our Chief Executive, spoke about the links between air pollution and the climate crisis and described – across COP26’s social media channels – the disproportionate health effects of air pollution.  

3. There is now a unique opportunity for action

Finally, we learned there is momentum to act. We were pleased there was a strong focus on health and that conversations about the health effects of air pollution involved stakeholders and decision-makers. Over the two weeks at COP26, we spoke to 22 policymakers from across political parties and the devolved nations. Moreover, this included Jo Churchill, MP, the Minister with responsibility for air quality, and Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester. 

These important conversations focused on the way improving air quality will benefit people’s health, and how reducing air pollution should fit into the Government’s levelling up agenda. 

COP26 was just the beginning of the Clear the air campaign. Next year, we’ll be taking the stories we’ve gathered from people around the country about how air pollution has affected their health and will present them to politicians during an event in Parliament. And, during the Government’s public consultation on air quality, we’ll be demanding ambitious targets for air quality. Importantly, these targets will protect the health and wellbeing of people across the UK. 

If you’d like to join the Clear the air campaign, and demand that Government takes action to improve air quality, you can share your story here.