openDemocracyUK

An urgent struggle: our tainted air

The deadliness of air pollution is all too often overlooked; a national action campaign is long overdue. 

Stuart Jeffery
22 February 2016
air pol.jpg

"Geograph/Chris LL", "CC BY-SA 2.0"

News that 5.5 million people are killed each year by air pollution comes after last year’s car manufacturer emission scandals. It is now clear that the air we breathe is badly tainted. Tainted with particulate matter that gets into our blood causing heart attacks, strokes and other diseases, leading to the early death of 29,000 people each year in the UK. Tainted by nitrous oxides that add a further 23,500 people to the death toll, bringing the known total to 52,500 people killed through air pollution: the equivalent of a 9/11 attack in the UK every three weeks. But our air is also tainted with corruption, ambivalence and a lack of political will.

The fixing of emissions tests by VW that has meant the 1.2m of their cars in the UK are pumping out more pollution than expected. Other car makers are being added to the list, with the Guardian so far identifying 11 of our main brands emitting far more emissions in real life than in testing. The prosecution of these companies must start early and it should be at least a charge of corporate manslaughter.

So will the government have the appetite to take the polluters to task? The results of last year's consultation on air quality were released with perfect timing to ensure the media missed that the death toll from air pollution had risen by 23,500. The press caught wind of this just before the announcement of the new Labour leader on the 12th September. Either the government is tainted by corruption or ambivalent about the deaths.

The majority of the pollution stems from traffic; and with the strong links between government and industry it is not difficult to see the problem. After decades of propaganda and subsidies to persuade people to travel by car, persuasion that goods must be imported from abroad and that more and more roads are good for the economy – or the rich – it is no wonder we have a car-based society and that we suffer the problems associated with it.

Government, in league with the industry, has managed to convince society that our atmosphere can be used as a magical dumping ground. Exhaust fumes disappear into thin air, clouds of black diesel smoke hang around for a few minutes and then vanish, and pollution from power stations only happens close to the chimney stack. In reality, the killer fumes are normally invisible and silent, and their impact is often felt years later – so there is no constant or immediate reminder to stop producing them. Not only is that magical dump only a thin layer around the earth – rapidly filling with pollution, in turn causing the deaths of millions worldwide and destabilising the entire climatic system – but that magical dump is also the very air that every living land creature and plant breathes.

So where is the huge outcry? Where are the mass demonstrations against air pollution and the pollution of life itself? Who is "Occupying VW"? While legal challenges from the excellent Client Earth group and their Healthy Air Campaign are superb, there seems to be no national direct action campaign focused on air pollution. And with no national direct action campaign to keep this in the minds of people and on the front pages of the media, the motor industry and government will find it easier to sweep the invisible killer under the carpet so that profits can continue to be made at the expense of lives.

Of course the solutions are difficult. Drastic changes to the way we live our lives are needed; it is not just a case of replacing diesel with electric vehicles. We have a society that is based on car use, shops that are out of town and jobs that need driving to. As most people without a car will tell you, it can be hard to keep pace with modern life if you don't have access one.

It's not just about cars either. Our homes and factories are not designed to conserve energy, and need heating and powering. To retrofit buildings with proper insulation is a step that not only reduces emissions, it reduces fuel costs too.

But our first step is to start shouting. Shouting loud against the tainted motor and energy industries, and against the government. We cannot let them kill 1,000 people each week. It is time to start a national campaign of action against air pollution.

 

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