Reaching WHO targets for air quality ‘could boost UK economy by £1.6 billion’

Reaching WHO targets for air quality could boost the UK economy by £1.6 billion annually, according to a new study.

The report by CBI Economics, ‘Breathing Life into the UK Economy’, commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, found that three million working days a year are lost to air pollution under the current targets.

The study calculated the impact across the UK and examined four cities in detail, with annual economic benefit estimated in London (£480 million), Birmingham (£25 million), Bristol (£7 million) and Manchester (£28 million).

Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, said: “We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier too. If businesses and Government work together to ensure clean air for all, we can protect our health and re-energise the economy at this critical time. Ministers must commit to binding targets to cut air pollution in line with WHO guidelines by 2030.”

The £1.6 billion 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.

“The CBI is delighted to have been able to work on this important piece of research,” said Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist of the CBI. “Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address air pollution and the impact it has on human health and the environment, there’s also a striking economic rationale. That is why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on green recovery should be central to our COVID-19 response.

“From mass-energy efficiency programmes to building new sustainable transport infrastructure, the green economy offers incredible opportunities for the UK. Improving air quality should be a key part of the UK’s journey to net zero. With air pollution hitting the balance sheets of businesses across the country, and cutting the earnings of their employees, cleaning up our air would help us to lead healthier and more productive lives while delivering a green jobs boost for the economy.”

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.

“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,” said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. “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.”

Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees said: “We have a moral, environmental and legal duty to improve air quality, and this report also shows the economic case is clear too. We have been committed to an approach that protects the most economically deprived in our city, because while air quality contributes to early deaths, we must also challenge the biggest killer: poverty.

“These two health challenges must be tackled together, and this report shows why. Poor air quality damages lives and disproportionately impacts our BAME and lower-income communities and we want them to share in the economic benefits of improved air quality this analysis highlights.”

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