What’s the problem with Air Pollution?

The problem is simple. Air pollution is causing the premature deaths over around 9,500 Londoners every year.

A joint report by over 40 MPs has described the problem as a public health emergency.

The World Health Organisation have described it as the “single biggest environmental health risk”

In April, during a particularly severe episode of pollution, London’s air quality was worse than Beijing’s.

The health impacts of air pollution include cardiovascular and respiratory problems, like lung disease, and stunted growth in children and neurological problems.

The wider causes of local air pollution are complex. A recent episode of severe pollution was caused predominantly by wind-blown particles from the continent. But they don’t always come so far from home.

The size and density of London’s and road network and population means the problem is more prevalent in London than elsewhere, especially as pollution can get trapped between the city’s buildings.

Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at Kings’ College, speaking at a sold-out ‘civic hack’ Makerversity workshop, highlighted findings which showed the effects road traffic has on pollution levels. During 2016’s Ride London event, a cycling event during which cars are taken off the road, there was a drastic fall in air pollution.

Last week, findings from Global Action Plan showed a vast drop in air pollution during the marathon when roads were closed to cars. The air quality index on Upper Thames Street was 89% better than on a typical Sunday.

Attitude = Action

Statistics like the ones above can often make the air pollution problem seem so large that individuals are powerless or at least to insignificant to affect change. How can we possibly get thousands of people to change their habits? Look at it another way and it’s clear that we can do it. Pollution will always be present to some degree, but we can reduce it.

Solly Townsend, founder of Climate Optimist, speaking at the ‘Tools for Change Workshop’ organised by Makerversity, threw a challenge to the prevailing notion about climate change: the idea that we are helpless to affect change. That attitude, she contends, derives from a state of fear, caused by the way climate change is talked about, particularly in the media. “95% of climate experts believe we can alter climate change. It’s just those who are fed fear and doom who don’t believe we can’t”

Rethink attitudes and focus on hope, she says, and you’ll find increasing action taken towards climate change “fear and anxiety around the issue causes apathy…

Climate Optimist was born through a realisation. I looked at all the great change-makers in world history and what did they have in common? Hope”.

The more we hope, the more action we take. If you believe – you can achieve it:“It always feels impossible until it’s done… But humans work to fulfil what we think to be true.”

OK. So now you’re feeling hopeful and have made a decision to make positive change, here are some ways you can help.

Get Involved

1. Increasing amounts of people are taking an interest in the problem. In response more and more energy is being taken to tackle the problem. That means more opportunities to get involved!

2. This week, Makerversity, a community of emerging design-based businesses, organised a civic hack to investigate the role design can play in creating clever and radical solutions to the air pollution problem.

3. Check out the events taking place this year. A talk organised by the Financial Times will explore many of the issues our air pollution and will feature a discussion between journalists, scientists and politicians. To mark Clean Air Day 2018, Prof Frank Kelly is giving a talk on air pollution and public health in Twickenham.

4. Finally, for more information about air pollution, a fairly comprehensive guide is here.

Take Action

5. You can take action in two ways. One is by reducing your exposure to polluted air, the other is by reducing your emissions.

Reduce your exposure

6. Use the CityAir app to get around the city. It’ll tell you how to avoid polluted routes. You could benefit from being exposed to around 89% less pollution by making small tweaks to your commute. Try taking the overground rather than the underground, for example, and walk quiet routes to work. Read the full report here.

7. If you’re ill or vulnerable, in light of recent findings it might be time to take air pollution a little more seriously. Apps like Plume Air Report, Breezometer and London Air will keep you updated on your local air quality.

8. Would you cancel that meeting on a day of particularly bad air? Would you join remotely or work from home to avoid commuting through toxic smog? If not, why not?

9. If you’re of a more intrepid persuasion, you can take inspiration from non-violent, direct action group Stop Killing Londoners.

Stop Killing Londoners Road Block Disco

10. Road Block Discos and getting arrested don’t suit everyone, but through a strategic escalation of direct action – including repeatedly chalk spraying City Hall with air pollution slogans – these guys and girls got Sadiq Khan to take notice. They have spent time in cells, and they ask who are the real criminals? Is it them or the polluters killing 9,000 people per year and the politicians not doing enough about it?

Stop Killing Londoners picture

11. If that’s given you the itch to get involved, check out the London Clean Air Coalition, a newly-formed group of soft-activists who have been putting pressure on the Mayor to implement more serious air pollution policy.

Reduce your emissions

12. We can’t take all our cars off the road. But we can affect positive change by choosing cleaner ways to travel. Cycle, walk, skip. Do whatever you can. The best advice might be this: avoid getting in a car. That includes your own car or an Uber or cab. Not only are cars the least efficient means to get from A to B in terms of emissions, they also take up the most road space per person, resulting in more traffic jams and more emissions. Vicious cycle. If you’ve got kids you get double points for not driving them to school – it’ll help your kids, and all their friends, avoid pollution.

13. Use this emissions calculator – targeted at school kids but a useful guide for anyone – if you’re in any doubt of the cleanest way to travel.

14. You can also be clever about how you shop – Sainbsury’s now offer cargo bike delivery in places. eCargoBikes.com provide electric cargo bikes for hire which you can fit ALL your shopping in and probably your family too. Let the electric motor do the heavy lifting.

15. If you absolutely have to drive, the easiest way to reduce emissions is to turn off your ignition when stationary. At home one of the worst things you can do is use a wood burner. Only a very small number of people use one, but it is thought to make up around a quarter of winter particle emissions.


16. If you’ve not found any inspiration in there, there’s probably no hope for you. Just kidding. There’s always hope.

17. Take inspiration from groups like Climate Optimist and Stop Killing Londoners and get involved with events and exhibitions like those at Makerversity. Downloads the apps mentioned above for tools to live a cleaner life.

18. But most of all remember: your choices – right now – make a difference.

What are you waiting for?

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