Dying for clean air

London's air pollution is so bad, it can be seen on occasion. Photo: David Holt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
London's air pollution is so bad, it can be seen on occasion. Photo: David Holt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Smog Day was launched in 2017 as a moment to remember all those dying unnecessarily due to air pollution.

In 2019 alone nearly half a million infants globally didn’t make it to being one month old because they were killed by air pollution. 

Smog Day 2020 tomorrow falls one week short of the fifth anniversary of the landmark Paris Climate Change conference in 2015. 

At the heart of the Paris Agreement is the imperative of eliminating the pollution that contributes not just to the climate crisis but a crisis in human health.

Since 2015, around 33 million people have died prematurely due to air pollution. It makes horribly real what the UN chief Antonio Guterres has just called our ‘suicidal war’ on nature. 


In 2019 alone nearly half a million infants didn’t make it to being one month old because they were killed by air pollution.

In the UK, these raw statistics were given a human face by the recently announced inquest into the tragic case of nine year old girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived by London’s South Circular Road, with her family arguing that she was killed by illegally high pollution levels.

Globally, nearly two thirds of the deaths of people whose lives are cut short by air pollution are attributable to fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which results mostly from the burning of fuels.

The number refers to the tiny size of the pollution particles, measured as 2.5 micrometres, which is one 400th of a millimetre. It’s so small that you can’t see what is killing you.

And if you are in a town or city, the most likely source is from road traffic, cars, vans and lorries. Extraordinarily, over 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where PM2.5 levels are above the guideline for healthy air laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO).


Smog Day was launched in 2017 as a moment to remember all those dying unnecessarily due to air pollution and to focus on ways to end its lethal impact on people and the world’s climate.

The date marks the anniversary of the Great London Smog of 1952, and falls in the middle of what has become an international smog season in the Northern Hemisphere.

It began as a way of sharing the experiences of people living with air pollution in London and New Delhi, where air quality has become among the worst in the world.

The 1952 London Smog was also the final prompt to introduce clean air legislation, which resulted in the peaking of coal consumption in the UK long before climate change became a priority.

And 2020 has been an exceptional year for air pollution in terms both of catastrophic warnings and new opportunities.


In 2019 alone nearly half a million infants globally didn’t make it to being one month old because they were killed by air pollution. 

Decisions taken over the next 12 months in the run up to the UK hosting the next climate conference, COP 26, could set course for either an irreversible, and murderous downward spiral of global air quality, or a new direction towards solutions to the climate emergency and better human health.

Global heating fanned fire weather during 2020 from California to Australia. But even though increasingly reported, for much of the year the world has been hugely distracted by the global coronavirus pandemic.

But even here, buried in the reports of tragic human casualty and haphazard official attempts to deal with the pandemic, air pollution has left its mark in at least two different ways.

Very small increases in long-term exposure to air pollution has been shown to result in an 11 percent increase in deaths from COVID-19

A different study put the rise in mortality due to air pollution even higher, at 15 percent. The links between human damage to the environment and the pandemic go further than this though.


A large body of research points to ‘zoonoses’ – the transfer of diseases from animals to humans – being made much more likely as a result of the pressures that people put on animal habitats, through climate change, deforestation, road building, intensive farming and other forms of ecological degradation.

Most of these also further contribute to air pollution and smogs.

But as well as revealing these links, the response to the pandemic signalled something more positive too.

It showed the speed with which we can change behaviour, and it showed the scale of action possible when societies decide to mobilise resources in the public interest.

Not only around the world did people fundamentally alter their daily routines and accept multiple behaviour changes to protect other people’s health, but public well-being was put before short term economic interests, but industries converted production to help, and massive public resources were mobilised.


Consumption patterns changed, with major retailers putting out the message to ‘buy only what you need’ (good advice in normal times for a world over-consuming and producing more waste than the biosphere can cope with).

Crucially, too, the language of avoid ‘unnecessary travel’ became common. That was to help prevent the spread of infection, but it had another unexpected positive outcome.

For a time people living in major cities experienced what they were like with radically reduced traffic.

Cleaner air and skies were commented on, being able to once again hear bird song was a topic of conversation, streets became safer for children and nature re-emerged in many urban environments.

New working patterns led even car industry advocates to predict that one outcome of the lockdown experience would be a long-term reduction in commuting.


Temporary measures to ensure more space is available on town and city streets for active travel – walking and cycling – have been widely introduced around the world – from Paris to New York, Madrid and beyond.

In many places the measures have also been designed to allow businesses like cafes and restaurants to continue trading in the open air, with tables on pavements and roads.

At the same time, in the UK at least, such measures have crossed over into the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods and some of these have become the focus of vocal, often angry motorists afraid of losing their privileged use of road space.

But many cities worldwide are showing that it is possible for modern urban life to escape the scourge of air pollution by radically reducing traffic levels and designing virtually car free cities.

From Oslo to Madrid, Milan and Paris, to Barcelona and Freiburg – cities are making bold moves to open streets to people, cyclists and public transport, and reduce cars to the role of more occasional guest. At the same time this reduces climate disrupting emissions and clears the air.


The question is how to take these inspiring measures and scale them up so we ‘build back better’ in the aftermath of COVID economy.

So far, crisis response spending from governments across the world has channelled more money to the fossil-fuel status quo than the clean economy of the future.

France and Germany have allocated EUR30bn and EUR50bn respectively of their stimulus to the green economy. In the UK, the government has released two green recovery packages so far, most recently in November with £4 billion in new spending on a green industrial strategy.

Sir David King, former government chief scientific advisor argued that this was “nowhere near enough to manage the British Government commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 or to provide a safe future.” It also stands in stark contrast with the £27 billion already announced for a new road building programme.

Five years on from the Paris climate deal, during which time carbon concentrations have kept rising and millions have died due to air pollution, it’s time to make an irreversible shift to clear the air of pollution.


This would deliver solutions to the climate emergency and better human health too. The UK could, for example, create a right to clean air, with a nationwide duty on all public bodies to take into account the impact of air pollution and climate change whenever they make a decision about public services or public funds.

The public sector equality duty is a precedent. It assesses the discriminatory impact on vulnerable groups of decisions taken by public bodies, and requires them to take remedial action.

It is now embedded in almost every public body decision-making process and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do the same for pollution.

Decisions taken over the next 12 months in the run up to the UK hosts the next climate summit, COP 26, will be crucial, reallocating government spending to support a genuinely green recovery and encouraging citizens and companies to follow on behind in their pensions and investments.

This would perhaps be the best way to remember the victims of pollution and prevent further human suffering in the decades ahead.

These Authors

Andrew Simms is a director of the New Weather Institute and coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance. Nick Robins is Professor in Practice of Sustainable Finance at the Grantham Institute at the LSE.

More from this author