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Clean Air Day’s Call for Action
Nigel Bellamy, Divisional Director – Air Quality, Jacobs, 15 June, 2017

With air pollution causing some 40,000* early deaths in the UK each year, poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to UK public health currently. Addressing air pollution from transport emissions, as part of longer-term air quality management and mitigation strategies, is now a key priority for our towns and cities.

The Government’s framework for Clean Air Zones provides one measure for helping us to improve air quality. We are working with a range of clients who are also keen to increase engagement across UK cities to improve knowledge sharing. Strategies such as smarter energy and resource usage, climate change interventions, and reducing congestion can contribute meaningfully to air quality management. The advent of smarter technology and big data provides a unique opportunity to improve our understanding of the demand for travel and the accuracy of transport models.

Re-designing the urban environment in a way which supports safe walking and cycling is an essential component of any air quality strategy. It also contributes towards the wider objectives of place-making and public health. The concept of ‘healthy streets’ becomes an integrated approach making the best use of our urban streets to meet multiple objectives.

All of these strategies, especially reducing the use of polluting vehicles, requires winning the hearts and minds in our communities and bringing about behaviour change. However, there is still a huge amount of confusion regarding what air pollution is, and a misunderstanding of the difference between greenhouse gas emissions versus local air quality and health impacts. This is a common theme when people first start to discuss air pollution, and weakens the link between your vehicle/travel choices and the health impacts it has on you and those around you.

The impacts of local air quality are now widely considered a public health crisis, but air quality is still often not given its rightful place in strategic decision making. A more informed public, empowered to challenge local and central government to take action, is a very powerful mechanism for prioritising local air quality on the political agenda, within the planning process, and for delivering meaningful long term change.

Today (15 June) the UK holds its first ever National Clean Air Day (NCAD), coordinated by Global Action Plan. With support and backing from over 50 health institutions, bringing together a network of cities including Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham and Southampton, NCAD aims to improve public awareness of air pollution as an issue, and inspire people to take action to tackle it.

The Clean Air Day campaign in Greater Manchester is a great example of an integrated, collaborative approach. Transport for Greater Manchester is working closely with the Combined Authority of ten local authorities to use Greater Manchester Clean Air Day to encourage all parts of the community to think about air quality. This includes how we can make simple changes in our everyday life to help reduce our contribution to air pollution, and also minimize our personal exposure, as well as that of our families. The campaign encourages people to make a pledge and try small changes.

Like many other participating cities today, Greater Manchester Clean Air Day is hosting a variety of events across schools, businesses, hospitals and the local community. The campaign is engaging with more than 500 primary schools, with interactive workshops and a competition to create their own Clean Air Day advert. The community can access a variety of other events for information and advice, including an eco-driver simulator and lung health check event; low emission vehicle promotion, and e-bike displays.

The Greater Manchester Low-Emission Strategy and Air Quality Action Plan sets out the steps to tackle air pollution now and well into the future, working with local councils and other partners across the region.

Across communities, educators, government, technology, and industry alike, we all have a role to improve air quality. I believe Clean Air Day is a fantastic initiative and an important part of our journey to bring about cleaner air and a healthier environment. Surely a more informed public, empowered to take action, is a very powerful mechanism for delivering meaningful long-term change.

Improving local air quality at a city scale is a difficult issue. Rapidly changing technology means that we have more information to enable smarter thinking, but how do we use this information, within the confines of our existing cities and infrastructure?

How do we better enable people to engage with the data available to them to make healthier choices?
These are vital questions, but together we can answer them.

* Royal College of Physicians 2016 report: Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.