Cleaning up our dirty air: what role can the comms industry play?

By Hannah Lewis-Davies

21st February 2017

It’s been gradually dawning on us for a while now: air pollution is all around us and the problem is getting worse every day. Of course, we’re all aware that air pollution is a key feature of any urban landscape, but most people have naively chosen to ignore it in the hope that the problem will eventually blow over. The truth of the matter is that 40,000 Brits die prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution every year. Britain has been in breach of EU nitrogen dioxide limits since 2010. This year alone, London overshot its annual air pollution limit for the whole of 2017 in the space of just five days. These facts speak for themselves – so when are we going to sit up and take action before it is too late?

One of the key reasons there may be a collective sense of complacency when seeking to overcome this problem, is the difficulty we have in really ‘seeing’ the problem. Granted, we no longer live in the Great Smog of the 1950s, however that does not mean that we are not still breathing in toxic air. Air pollution is deadly and even more dangerous because we can’t see the daily impact it is having on our bodies. New research is emerging every day that points to a range of ways in which it is affecting us, from stunting children’s lung growth to increasing our chances of developing dementia.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There has been a noticeable shift in recent months in the way in which the media is reporting on the problem. The VW emissions scandal has firmly placed the topic of air quality on the top of the news agenda and reminds us that air pollution is a man-made problem that can be overcome. There is a growing appetite from the public who want to better understand the issue. Innovative companies are helping us to do so. For example, tech start-up and Eulogy client, Drayson Technologies is helping us to ‘see the air we breathe’ with its CleanSpace app, which maps real-time air pollution as people go about their day-to-day lives. Products like this are engaging the public and improving our understanding of the topic. This in turn is putting pressure on the government to take action.

The first steps are being taken to acknowledge the problem. Work now needs to be done to undo the damage we have done. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has recently pledged £875m over the next five years to reduce pollution levels, more than double the amount that Boris Johnson had invested. Khan’s proposed Ultra Low Emission zone, coming into force in 2020, will reduce the number of polluting vehicles on the roads. However, London needs to be doing more. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have all committed to bar diesel vehicles completely by 2025 and London should be following suit.

It will require a collective effort to tackle air pollution and it is not going to happen overnight. The communications industry has a responsibility to campaign for this change. As communicators, we have the power to improve understanding, raise awareness, and proactively push for ways to call into question what the government is doing to improve the situation. It’s never too late to start making up for lost time. It is our responsibility to ensure that this topic does not leave the news agenda until we start reading positive news stories about how London and the UK are overcoming the problem. The next generation will thank us for it.