Breathing Cities - a right for everyone to breathe clean air

Breathing Cities - a right for everyone to breathe clean air
Camilla Zerr, Climate Change Campaigns Officer, talks about the Green Party's new climate change campaign aimed at drastically reducing air pollution in the UK's cities

As Jonathan Bartley announced the Green Party’s Breathing Cities campaign at Autumn Conference this October, I felt the campaign become real. Imagine city centres alive with people walking in streets that are attractive and safe. Imagine people cycling freely along numerous prioritised cycle lanes and enjoying streamlined electric public transport. Imagine cities moving away from dependency on vehicles that discharge polluting emissions that clog our streets and fill our lungs. Imagine city centres where electric cars and taxis enable people, including the elderly, infirm and disabled, to move around smoothly, unperturbed by the danger of traffic. Having grown up in the countryside and recently moved to London, this campaign vision definitely feels like a breath of fresh air!

Ever more shocking figures are being published revealing that we are breathing illegally poisonous air every day in most cities in the UK. This is affecting our health and that of the most vulnerable around us. To mention just one of these figures, data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) released in September 2017 shows that legal levels of air pollution are being breached in 86 per cent of zones across the UK where air quality is being measured (37 out of the 43 zones). This was the case in 2015, and is still the case now.

Nothing has changed, despite the government having been taken to court twice because of illegal levels of air pollution. And this is contributing to the death of sixty four people a day, according to a High Court judge. At the Green Party, we know that lowering emissions is not enough: we need to zero them. And the best place to start is in our cities – or more precisely, our city centres.

Breathing Cities is a crucial step in helping people see the impact that we are having on our environment as a reality. I am constantly grappling with the fact that climate change seems like a distant issue (spatially and temporally) for some, whilst for others it can just seem too overwhelming to think about or tackle. Breathing Cities will help overcome these barriers by focusing on air pollution that is experienced locally and affects everyone’s health and wellbeing on a daily basis.

The beauty of this campaign is that actions to reclaim our cities for people rather than cars and clean the air will at the same time help tackle climate change in a practical, locally driven way. The main source of air pollution by far is transport (car, lorry and bus exhausts) and transport is a big emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the most common greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. In 2016, 26 per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions were generated by transport, making transport the largest emitting sector in the UK.

Some examples of essential policies that tackle both air pollution and climate change include: more sustainable forms of travel such as walking, cycling and public transport; use of electric vehicles; charges for vehicles exceeding legal emission standards, and vehicle scrappage schemes. Tackling climate change and air pollution go hand in hand, and this is a fact that I will highlight at every step of the Breathing Cities campaign.

One of the most exciting elements of this campaign is that it is primarily aimed at city councils, meaning it will enable communities to take practical actions to reduce emissions locally with their Green Party groups. As a local resident, you will be called to submit your innovative ideas about how you would design your Breathing City. You could also participate in bicycle city takeovers, electric bicycle races, or car free days, as well as helping with air quality monitoring at your local school. 

As elected Greens, lobbying your city council to make the changes necessary to tackle air pollution in a meaningful way will be key, using ideas generated by public participation in the ‘Design My Breathing City’ forum, for example, and national Green Party support. Alongside local change, Green councillor voices will be fundamental in our call for government to publish a new Clean Air Act fit for the 21st century, by which EU air quality standards will be translated into UK law.

Ultimately, a dynamic relationship between national Green Party coordination and local Green group actions will give Breathing Cities the unique vigour and ambition needed to address emissions in a hands-on, measurable way at local and national levels – don’t let it leave you breathless!