Meeting the UK’s Climate Change Act commitments could cut nitrogen dioxide air pollution by up to 60% and lead to improved public health, according to new analysis by King’s College London
The research, published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal on Friday (27 April), notes that the Climate Change Act requires the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.
Meeting these obligations could mean that in London, NO2 concentrations could fall by more than 50% by 2050. Significant particulate matter reductions across the country are also expected, the study suggests.
Currently, around 29,000 premature deaths in the UK are associated with exposure to small particulate air pollution caused by wide range of sources, including road transport.
The analysis suggests that meeting the targets of the UK Climate Change Act could deliver ‘significant’ health benefits.
Reductions could be seen in cities across the UK by 2050, including: Cardiff and Newcastle, which could benefit from a 42% reduction in small particulate air pollution (PM5) in one scenario; Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester, which could benefit from a 57% reduction in NO2 in the same scenario.
Professor Martin Williams of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London, the lead author of the study, said: “This is the first study that compares the impacts of policy scenarios to reduce carbon emissions on health and life expectancy from changes associated with air pollution in the UK.
“Our research demonstrates that climate change mitigation policies have the potential to make dramatic improvements in public health through their parallel improvements in air quality. It is imperative that climate change and air pollution policies are considered together to fully realise the health benefits of both.â€?
As part of the study, researchers combined a techno-economic energy systems model, air pollutant-emission inventories, a Community Multi-scale Air Quality model, and previously published associations between concentrations and health outcomes.
The researchers used four scenarios and focused on the air pollution implications from fine particulate matter (PM2·5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone.
The four scenarios were baseline, which assumed no further climate actions beyond those already achieved; nuclear power, which met the Climate Change Act target with a limited increase in nuclear power; low-greenhouse gas, which met target without any policy constraint on nuclear build; and a constant scenario that held 2011 air pollutant concentrations constant until 2050.
The researchers predicted the health and economic impacts from air pollution for the scenarios until 2050, and the inequalities in exposure across different socioeconomic groups.
According to the study, a large increase in the proportion of hybrid, hydrogen and compressed-gas fuelled vehicles will contribute to large reductions in NOx.
However, in some of the modelled scenarios, potential increases in domestic biomass burning are anticipated, which in itself could have a knock-on effect on particulate matter emissions.
The study concludes: “…mitigation policies need to be carefully designed to avoid undue increases in harmful air pollution emissions. The effects on health of a changing climate and policies to mitigate climate change are many and varied. The effects of mitigation policies have the potential to make dramatic improvements in public health through their parallel improvements in air quality.â€?
Commenting on the findings, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said: “Climate change is a risk to health in Britain. So by reducing emissions, just like stopping smoking, we can realise a raft of health benefits. This study shows that an 80% cut in greenhouse gases will dramatically reduce air pollution. So from a health perspective, it would certainly seem to make sense to press on and cut these emissions to zero. What’s good for the planet is good for health.â€?