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Blog 15 April 2021

The UK’s Clean Air Zones will save both lives and money – we need similar measures all over the world

Jane Burston Rain Newton-Smith, Chief Economist at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)
Analysis from CBI Economics, commissioned by Clean Air Fund, shows that Clean Air Zones in UK cities will make residents healthier and wealthier by reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Jane Burston from the Clean Air Fund, and the CBI's Rain Newton-Smith make a strong case for swift action by city leaders to tackle air pollution.
EconomyHealthUnited Kingdom
  • New research shows how clean air policy-making generates significant economic and health benefits.
  • The UK’s Clean Air Zones could deliver an 18% (5 µg/m3) reduction in NO2, prevent at least 1% of deaths and inject millions of pounds in the cities where they’re introduced.
  • To reap the greatest benefits, local and national governments need to act now.

Every so often, an issue comes to the fore that appeals to both head and heart. People care about it and want it to happen, but it’s not just a moral or emotional case. It makes business sense too.

In the UK today, air pollution is one such issue. We know the public wants action to clean our air as we build back better from the pandemic. A survey commissioned by the Clean Air Fund in 2020 showed that air pollution is one of the top-three public health concerns in the UK.

People are right to want change. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 7 million premature deaths each year are linked to air pollution. Poor air quality contributes towards around 19% of all cardiovascular deaths and 29% of all lung cancer deaths.

When the Clean Air Fund first commissioned CBI Economics to analyse the economic potential of achieving clean air in the UK, the penny began to drop on the business case too. In the UK alone, we found the economy could benefit to the tune of £1.6 billion each year if it were to achieve the guidelines set by the WHO for ‘safe’ air quality – and this is on top of potential savings for the NHS and social care.

The economic case for Clean Air Zones in UK cities

New research builds this economic case out further at a city level. Today’s analysis shows the UK’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) programme would deliver significant health and economic benefits for people in some of the country’s major cities, specifically by reducing dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in key areas. Read the new research, which includes CAZ analysis of the following cities:

  • Birmingham
  • Bristol
  • Manchester
  • Liverpool
  • London
  • Newcastle
  • Portsmouth 
  • Sheffield

Read the reports for each city here.

The report’s findings are really important incentives for the cities themselves – and show 250 schemes with similar goals around the world what is possible.

First, it is important to set the scene a little. In 2017, a landmark legal challenge from our friends at ClientEarth forced the UK government to recognise its failure to address the dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) polluting our air and threatening our health.

In response, the government tasked 37 local authorities in the UK to deliver policies to hit legally binding targets for reducing concentrations of NO2. Given that vehicles contribute 80% of NO2 pollution across the UK, restricting the most polluting vehicles from known traffic hotspots was identified as the fastest and most effective way of hitting these goals.

These new findings from CBI Economics underline the economic case for this action. By restricting the most polluting vehicles from entering the worst affected areas, the CAZs are projected to deliver an average 18% reduction in NO2 across eight key cities. What’s more, this could prevent at least 1% of deaths in those cities’ populations while injecting millions into local economies by saving lives and reducing illness and days off work due to NO2 exposure.

The analysis also suggests we can build further on these gains with more expansive and targeted measures. For example, London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – a world first – has reduced NO2 levels by 44% within its boundaries already. At the same time, London remains the worst affected city in the UK, with concentrations of NO2 exceeding the limit by up to 95% in its most polluted areas. Today’s research suggests London could see an additional £48m yearly benefit from the planned extension of the ULEZ in October this year, on top of preventing up to 614 deaths annually.

Meanwhile, Manchester’s extended CAZ – which will cover the entire greater Manchester region, not just the city centre – will inject at least £7.1m into the city’s economy, compared to the £1.5 million projected gain from Liverpool’s CAZ, or £1 million in Bristol. The message is clear: the further the CAZs stretch and the quicker they are implemented, the greater the gains will be. These are the win-wins we need as we build back better from the pandemic, both in the UK and beyond.

And just as today’s numbers make the case for action, they also highlight the costs of delaying.

So far, implementation of CAZs has been patchy. Bath and Birmingham will launch the first CAZs in early to mid-2021, followed by London’s ULEZ expansion in the autumn of 2021. Bristol and Manchester are also expected to introduce CAZs within the next year. However, the impact of COVID-19 has led authorities in Liverpool and Sheffield to delay implementation of their CAZ, while Leeds has scrapped its plans entirely. Our findings suggest that delays to CAZ schemes in northern cities will leave their citizens and economies behind and increase the economic divide between the country’s north and south.

The CAZ programme is one of the clearest ways for local and national government in the UK to work in step to build back better on air quality, backed by a clear public mandate. This research shows delivering them quickly will be good for the health – and the wallets – of people in our major cities – and likewise that delays will be bad. The Clean Air Fund will be working with authorities and campaign groups to make sure this data informs policies and approaches that drive this critical initiative forward in the UK, and that the lessons can be absorbed for other cities and regions around the world.

This piece has been written by Jane Burston Executive Director at the Clean Air Fund and Rain Newton-Smith, Chief Economist at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

This article was first published on World Economic Forum and is reprinted with permission.

A partnership with the World Economic Forum is in place to protect public health by mobilising multi-stakeholder action on ambient air pollution. The Forum will build a cohort of leaders to catalyse corporate and political will; create a shared set of tools and facts for prioritising actions; drive thought leadership; deliver concrete action as well as share lessons learned.

A full explanation of the methodology can be found in the accompanying methodology document.