Your say / Air pollution

‘Why air pollution is an attack on the poor’

By charlie bolton, Wednesday Jul 12, 2017

One of the arguments used against meaningful action on air pollution (which likely includes some form of charging scheme against the most polluting vehicles) is that it is an attack on the poor.

A ‘Clean Air Zone’ in Bristol could introduce such a tax, as one of a range of possible outcomes of a review into the issue.

The argument against is as follows: ‘If you tax the most polluting cars, they’ll tend to be old, cheaper ones – so they’ll be the ones who have to pay. And frankly, rich people with old, polluting cars are rich, so can afford such a charge in any case.’

My instant response to that is ‘Who on earth do you think is going to suffer most from air pollution? Do you think it’s going to be the rich?’ To back it up, I thought I’d see if there is any research which answers my question.

Green Party co-leader Caroline, with members and school pupils in Bristol to highlight the dangers of air pollution

I thought it would be harder than it has actually proved – here are some of the results:

1.       Ethnic minorities and deprived communities hardest hit by air pollution

A study by Imperial College London has found big differences in air pollution across communities in England, with deprived and ethnic minority areas the worst affected. In England, the most deprived 20 per cent of neighbourhoods had higher air pollution levels than the least deprived neighbourhoods – 1.5 µg/m3 higher PM10 and 4.4 µg/m3 NO2 after adjusting for other factors.

2.       Toxic combination of air pollution and poverty lowers child IQ

Children born to mothers experiencing economic hardship, who were also exposed during pregnancy to high levels of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) present in vehicle emissions, scored significantly lower on IQ tests at the age of five compared with children born to mothers with greater economic security and less exposure to the pollutants.

3.       Air Quality and Social Deprivation in the UK: an environmental inequalities analysis

Inequalities in the distribution of pollutant concentrations (higher relative concentrations in the more deprived deciles) can be observed for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10), and for sulphur dioxide (SO2) in England and Northern Ireland.

In layman’s language, this means poorer areas are more polluted. For NO2 and PM10, this distribution can largely be explained by the high urban concentrations as a result of road transport sources, and the higher proportion of deprived communities in urban areas.

4.       An environmental justice analysis of exposure to traffic-related pollutants in England and Wales

A 2017 report from UWE includes the statement: “Young children and adults, and households in poverty, are much more likely to suffer from the effects of traffic than older people and more affluent households. Furthermore, it is these more affluent households that contribute most to traffic pollution through owning the most vehicles and generating the highest emissions.”

Do I need say any more? Poor people disproportionately suffer the impacts of pollution.

It’s kind of obvious really. Rich people buy their way out of problems. Poor people cannot. So, assuming that an analysis of air quality issues in Bristol shows a significant level of air pollutants are caused specifically by cars, which I am confident it will, then the case is clear – we need to discourage the most polluting cars from the most polluted areas.

This may well mean introducing charges, but with sufficient advance notice and set at the right level, we believe the public health benefits will far outweigh the costs. We tax cigarettes for the same reasons.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, recently claimed that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire were “murdered by political decisions.”

Well, in fact – isn’t exactly the same thing happening here? Car manufacturers who have cheated emission tests share responsibility, but aren’t all of us politicians in some way to blame?

Of course, it shouldn’t be all ‘stick’, there needs to be some ‘carrot’ too. Income from charging vehicles could and should be used in a way to improve the lot of the least well-off. For example, a levy could be used to subsidise cheaper public transport for the poorer, fund discounts in a diesel scrappage scheme to reward people for replacing them, provide investment for an electric van/car share platform or electric buses, provide funding for initiatives to tackle pollution in the worst areas.

It is also something supported by the Royal College of Physicians who recommend “charging zones to local authorities as a cost-effective measure that will protect and promote health from the joint challenges of climate change and air pollution.”

The conclusion is obvious. Make our air clean as soon as possible. Introduce a Clean Air Zone as soon as possible. Make it as effective as possible and therefore act to stop the most polluting vehicles now.

Charlie Bolton is a Green councillor for Southville.


Read more: Greens launch air pollution challenge in Bristol


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