Air pollution over London

Cleaner air could add £1.6bn to the UK economy

The UK economy could be boosted by £1.6bn each year if the country set more stringent legal limits for air pollution, according to a new report by the Clean Air Fund.

The research by CBI Economics, the CBI’s economic analysis arm, shows that by meeting the World Health Organisation’s more stringent air quality guidelines the UK economy would benefit significantly, thanks to a reduction in premature deaths, sick leave and lower productivity at work.

The WHO recommends a legal limit of 10 µg/m³ annual mean for particulate matter (PM2.5); a type of microscopic pollution. Right now, the limit in the UK is set at 25 µg/m³ annual mean, more than twice the amount considered safe by the WHO.

We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier too

Jane Burston, Executive Director, Clean Air Fund

With air pollution reduced to within WHO-recommended limits, businesses would benefit because three million working days a year would no longer be lost to workers taking time off through sickness, or looking after children with pollution-related illnesses. With this increased productivity UK workers could have increased earnings of up to £900m.

Rain Newton-Smith, Chief Economist at the CBI, says this report (see here) shows that now is the perfect time to build a green economy:

“The CBI is delighted to have been able to work on this important piece of research,” he says. “Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address air pollution and the impact it has on human health and the environment, there’s also a striking economic rationale. That is why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on green recovery should be central to our COVID-19 response.”

Developing a green post-Covid recovery would not only support and improve public health but create jobs, too. “From mass energy efficiency programmes to building new sustainable transport infrastructure, the green economy offers incredible opportunities for the UK,” says Newton-Smith.

“Improving air quality should be a key part of the UK’s journey to net zero. With air pollution hitting the balance sheets of businesses across the country, and cutting the earnings of their employees, cleaning up our air would help us to lead healthier and more productive lives, while delivering a green jobs boost for the economy.”

In addition to this boost to the economy, there would be significant savings to the NHS and social care budgets, as there would be fewer patients dying or being hospitalised with pollution-related illnesses including cardiac arrests, strokes, severe asthma attacks and lung cancer.

London could make the biggest economic gains if air pollution is reduced, up to £480m, according to findings, while, the economies of Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester could gain up to £25m, £7m and £28m per year. All of these cities were set to become Clean Air Zones, but those plans are now on hold until 2021 at the earliest.

When air quality is improved, everyone wins, says Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund: “We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier too. If businesses and government work together to ensure clean air for all, we can protect our health and re-energise the economy at this critical time. Ministers must commit to binding targets to cut air pollution in line with WHO guidelines by 2030.”

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