A new clean air law is starting out in parliament after the Green party peer Jenny Jones won first place in the House of Lords ballot for private members’ bills.
Named Ella’s law, as a tribute to nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who died from asthma induced by air pollution, the bill would establish a right to clean air and set up a commission to oversee government actions and progress. It would also join policies on indoor and outdoor air pollution with actions to combat our climate emergency, and include annual reviews of the latest science.
Jones said: “Having a nice environment isn’t just a matter of ecology and science, it is a question of social justice. The clean air (human rights) bill would enshrine the human right to healthy air precisely and explicitly in UK law. A suitable date for the government to put it into law would be before the 70th anniversary of the Great Smog later this year”.
The UK’s first Clean Air Act also began as a private member’s bill, introduced by the handlebar moustached Tory MP Gerald Nabarro. Nabarro’s bill was triggered by a Ministry for Health report that estimated a death toll of about 4,000 people due to the weeklong London smog of 1952, a death rate greater than the Victorian cholera outbreaks and the worst periods of the blitz.
Politically, Jones and Nabarro are poles apart but Jones’s bill comes at a time when about 4,000 Londoners die from breathing polluted air each year. UK annual deaths are estimated to be between 28,000 and 36,000, and globally it is about 7 million.
Since Nabarro’s bill, thousands of research studies have explored the health harm from air pollution, or, viewed from a different angle, the benefits that could come from cleaner air.
Dr Maria Neira, the World Health Organization (WHO) director for public health, environmental and social determinants of health, said: “These days we have overwhelming evidence that air pollution harms health, more than enough evidence to justify actions to reduce exposure. You can imagine the incredible number of lives we will save.”
Improving air pollution saves money from reduced absence from work and less cost to the NHS. In parallel to Jones’s bill, the government is asking for views on its own targets for particle pollution in England. These targets for 2040 match the guidelines that were set by the WHO in 2005. Additionally, it is proposed to reduce average particle pollution by 35%. According to government analysis, the benefits from these actions would be five times greater than the money than spent cleaning our air.