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Opinion

Chris Packham: Act now to prevent early deaths due to air pollution

All We Need Is The Air That We Breathe: Springwatch host Chris Packham writes exclusively for The Big Issue on how acting now will prevent thousands dying early

You may have read recently in the press that air pollution is linked to between 23,500 and 40,000 early deaths in the U.K. every year.

Critical analysis by the Winton Centre at Cambridge University has revealed that it’s perhaps more accurate to say that “190,000 cardiovascular deaths are brought forward by an average of two years” and that “many more than 29,000 individuals are affected”.

Whatever the precise figure, this is a very serious issue with significant impacts on life expectancy and NHS costs in terms of treatment and it clearly warrants some urgent action.

Err, so why did the government repeatedly refuse to publish its action plan to combat this crisis? Why when a court had in November ordered Secretary of State for the Environment Andrea Leadsom to publish the draft plan to tackle illegal levels of air pollution across the country did she only do so this week?

Why did the government try to use the ‘election purdah’ to try to prolong the publication?

Well, now we know. Described as ‘toothless’, ‘half baked’ and ‘weak’ by critics, the draft plans were finally aired (but buried under all the attention the local elections got) and only really championed by, guess who: The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

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Sadiq Khan who presides over a city clogged with poisoned fug is justifiably concerned.

“It’s a weak plan that lacks any sense of urgency” he said. According to Ed Davey, former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it’s “not a plan, it’s a cop out”.

Caroline Lucas of the Green party added “The government is standing Idly by while Britain chokes.” The proposals are out for consultation, the final plan is due in July, so once again we wait with baited as well as poisoned breath .

I’m pretty pissed off. I was misled and lied to

Especially all those of us who were encouraged to buy diesel vehicles, perhaps even more those who bought vehicles affected by the emissions scandal.

I’m one of those. A Skoda owner who still hasn’t had my car ‘fixed’ due to ‘technical difficulties’. I’m pretty pissed off. I was misled and lied to – rather than helping the environment I’ve been making it worse.

You see, amongst the most dangerous components of toxic air are nitrogen dioxides and other nitrogen oxides emitted by road vehicles, and particularly Diesel engines, which emit four times more nitrogen dioxide and 22 times more particulates – the tiny particles that penetrate lungs, brain and heart. And it’s here they do their harm as the causes of death are strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and other lung diseases.

Although there is no firm commitment, what of the mooted government funded ‘scrapage scheme’? It’s very loosely based on a similar initiative in France, which has been pretty successful. Drivers of diesel cars were handed €10,000 ditch their motor and now 100,000 people drive an all-electric car. Good idea, certainly a start. But with more than 11.5 million diesel cars in the UK, also a very, very expensive one.

And a big hole in the budget is not great news before an election, is it? It’s equally bad to be sandwiched between all those motorist you encouraged to buy diesel cars who are about to be taxed and penalised and the mothers of all the children who are breathing deadly air on the streets of the UK. Wouldn’t want to lose either of their votes would you?

The upshot is that we continue to be poisoned because of politics when we know what the problem is and how to fix it. Something’s got to change – maybe not just my car .

Read Chris Packham’s advice on photographing the wildlife in your garden in next week’s Big Issue. Springwatch returns to BBC2 on May 29.

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