Reported by Mejd Alsari, CSaP Policy Intern (September – December 2018)
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently published the Clean Air Strategy 2018 for consultation, which sets out its plans to reduce air pollution across different source types.
To discuss the way forward in the context of Defra’s strategy, CSaP brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, social scientists, and civil society in a workshop to discuss strategies to reduce air pollution. The workshop took place in Christ's College, Cambridge and was chaired by CSaP's Executive Director, Dr Robert Doubleday.
Air pollution is a serious global concern that is linked to the deaths of millions of people every year. It is the fourth greatest threat to public health in the UK after cancer, heart disease and obesity. The air gets polluted when toxic or excessive amounts of gases, particulates or other substances are introduced into the atmosphere. These pollutants are emitted from day-to-day activities, including transport, energy production, chemicals manufacture, domestic combustion and farming, and once released into the air they have a gradual but significant impact on the environment.
There is a firm understanding of the breadth of the air pollution issue, however there is much less consensus about the solutions to mitigate its damage.
Harriet Wallace, Defra’s lead for Air Quality and Industrial Emissions, opened the workshop by outlining the challenges in developing policies that will help deliver on the commitments made in the strategy. The main areas discussed included: how to improve the evidence presented on air quality; how to improve public engagement about poor air quality; what drives people’s behaviour; and what makes policy change?
Participants agreed that more accurate evidence on the key causes of air pollution was needed to help shape effective policy interventions; nevertheless precautionary measures would also need to be taken to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of pollution and mitigate its adverse effects. “Science is ‘recursive’ and will tend to raise new questions and new uncertainties", said Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, adding, "We should therefore not wait for science to ‘conclude’ before starting to design policy."
Tackling air pollution will also require behavioural change and longer-term shifts in social norms, which are very much dependant on how policies are framed. Effective framing can be achieved by considering all the factors contributing to air pollution. Susan Owens, Emeritus Professor of Environment and Policy at Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, commented: “We should look at all aspects but we should not use any one factor as an excuse for not looking at the others. It’s important not to lose sight of a particular source just because there’s a powerful lobby trying to distract our attention from it”.
Effective behavioural change comes from a detailed understanding of the issue and of the individual’s contribution to the overall change. Making people aware of the benefits and risks associated with government interventions on air quality is likely to have the largest impact on acceptability. In addition, people are more likely to change their behaviour when such interventions get them active around the issue.
Regulation and government intervention must focus more on achieving societal behavioural change, especially when an individual’s behaviour can impact the health of others.
The workshop was a huge success; participants both contributed to and benefited from the discussions, which will be summarised in a note CSaP is currently drafting. CSaP looks forward to helping Defra build on the outcomes of the workshop and move the air quality strategy forward.
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