We’re choking on our own air.

You can’t always see it, but air pollution is responsible for 40, 000 premature deaths every year in the UK. Yet no matter how many people it affects, our government remains stubbornly fixed to a warped values system which puts GDP over human lives.

The reason for this is that our minds (and those of our politicians) are stuck in a rigid way of thinking which accepts the inevitability of the status quo. The right to drive polluting vehicles around our smoggy cities is inalienable, the building of new runways and aviation capacity is necessary for growth and the human and environmental cost of these is an unfortunate by-product.

To remain trapped in a single-minded paradigm, believing only economic growth can deliver the improvements in wellbeing which should be the objective of any democratic government is to do ourselves a terrible injustice. We’re letting people die for the sake of an ideology.

The source and solution of this problem lies in the hands of politicians.

When the environment and transport departments suggested that diesel cars should be forced to pay a charge to enter any of the government’s proposed new clean air zones in five cities, the Treasury decreed it would be too “politically … difficult” and blocked the move. Likewise, the changing of vehicle excise duty rates to encourage the purchase of low pollution vehicles and scrappage schemes for old diesel cars were rejected by the Treasury. Somehow, tens of thousands of deaths a year remain politically acceptable.

The British government’s decision to support the building of a third runway at Heathrow is also symptomatic of the political establishment’s infatuation with economic growth at any cost. Yet even the economic contribution of a new runway, at £1 billion per year, is dwarfed by the annual cost of air pollution which government statistics estimate to be £27.5 billion.

Only when threatened with legal action does our government stir into action, even then, with reluctance. When environmental law firm, ClientEarth defeated the government’s air pollution strategy in the Supreme Court 18 months ago, the government was forced to draw up a new plan. This was so lacking in ambition that the judge in a second case brought by ClientEarth has ruled it to be illegal and ordered the government to ensure pollution is brought down to legal levels “as soon as possible”.

Now the government has rejected ClientEarth’s proposal to produce a new action plan within eight months, they will return to court. It is an outrage our government requires civil society and the courts to force them to do their job, but as long as human wellbeing is seen as secondary to economic growth, it will be up to individuals across the country to look out for each other – for workers’ rights, our climate and our air.

If we are to make progress on reducing air pollution and save lives, we must remember what we truly value as a society. We needclean air to live, we can’t breathe GDP. Let’s put people ahead of numbers.


Written by Rupert Stuart-Smith