If the SNP cares about inequality it should tackle air pollution

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 2 March 2016 in Comment

Like all of Scotland’s most insidious problems, air pollution hits the most vulnerable in society the hardest

Air pollution is killing more people than we thought. That was the news to come from a new Royal College of Physicians report, released last week, estimating that around 40,000 deaths can be attributed to outdoor air pollution in the UK each year. In Scotland, that probably means between 2,500-3,000 deaths annually.

The European Environment Agency describes air pollution as the single biggest health threat in Europe. Across the continent, it attributes more than 430,000 premature deaths each year to dangerous particles in the air we breathe, largely caused by transport emissions.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, pollution levels are breaking health standards in 32 official pollution zones.


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In fact, the risk is so severe the European Commission actually launched legal action against the UK in 2014 for failing to meet air quality laws. Pollution was dangerously high, it said, and the UK’s plan to reduce it was not convincing. If the UK loses the case, the fines will run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

After the Scottish Government was required by the UK Supreme Court to produce a clean air strategy, it pledged to improve monitoring of air pollution, adopt WHO guidelines on particulate matter pollution in legislation, and work to increase awareness of the problem.

But critics suggested the new strategy itself was in breach of European law, because it does not provide specifics on how its action – there are over 80 measures – will reduce air pollution.

Critically, it also fails to set targets for reducing traffic.

Air pollution was one of the first issues I wrote about at Holyrood, around two years ago. As part of it I spoke to a man, Mic Starbuck, who is affected by asthma. Breathing in even small amounts of polluted air can trigger an attack at any time, he said, forcing him to carry an inhaler everywhere he goes.

He said he had been forced to stop travelling into the centre of Glasgow during rush hour. He plans his day to avoid local pollution hotspots – busy junctions, taxi ranks, fast-food outlets and anywhere there could be fumes from wood burning stoves and central heating systems. Mic said the problem was putting his life at risk.

I wrote the piece around six months before the independence referendum. In the two years since, Scotland has changed. And it is probably fair to say the issue has moved up the agenda.

Yet recent transport figures make for depressing reading. Between 2006 and 2014, the proportion of people walking to work fell from 13.8 per cent to 12.9 per cent. The proportion using buses as their usual mode of transport dropped from 11.8 per cent to 10.2 per cent. Meanwhile, car use increased.

Ahead of the budget, a coalition of environmental, transport and health groups called for the SNP to take one per cent of its planned spending on trunk roads and motorways and put it into active travel instead. The bid failed.

The SNP has seemed reluctant to take direct action on a so-called environmental issue, which remains invisible. But there is also an economic argument for action – the RCP report found air pollution costs the UK health system around £20bn every year. The Scottish Government’s own report shows it costs the UK economy up to £54bn.

So calls for action grow louder. Health organisations – like the British Heart Foundation – have also been playing a greater role in the debate. Treating it as a health risk, within the prevention agenda, may be a more effective way to frame the issue. After all, respiratory disease is the country’s third biggest killer.

And like all of Scotland’s most insidious problems, air pollution hits the most vulnerable members of society the hardest. The old, the young, and the poor are most at risk.

If the Scottish Government cares about prevention in the health sector, and it wants to tackle inequality, it should care about this.

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