Improving air quality could boost regional economy by £28m

Damian Waters

Greater Manchester’s economy could benefit by £28m a year by reducing premature deaths, sickness absence and lower productivity at work if the UK met the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air pollution, which are stricter than current UK limits.

New research, produced by CBI Economics, the economic analysis arm of bosses’ organisation the CBI, on behalf of the Clean Air Fund, shows the vital importance of securing green and healthy growth.

The report, ‘Breathing Life into the UK Economy’ claims that reducing air pollution to WHO levels could prevent 17,000 premature deaths of people of working age every year who are dying nearly 12 years earlier than expected, on average.

For businesses in Greater Manchester, a loss of 80,000 working days could be prevented each year by meeting the WHO’s guidelines, with workers currently becoming ill, or having to take time off to care for sick children as a result of air pollution.

The report is believed to be the first analysis of the economic benefits of reducing pollution levels, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5), to what are considered ‘safe levels’.

A WHO report in May, 2018, claimed that Salford, Manchester and Liverpool are among the most polluted towns in the UK.

The WHO guidelines for PM2.5 – a form of microscopic pollution – are more than twice as stringent as UK legal levels. The report finds that lowering air pollution levels to WHO guidelines could reduce premature deaths and make those skills available to the economy.

In addition, workers are less likely to suffer sickness from poor air quality, which would increase their available hours for work.

The £1.6bn annual benefit to the UK economy would be on top of savings to NHS and social care budgets from treating fewer patients with health conditions associated with pollution.

Air pollution can trigger cardiac arrests, strokes, severe asthma attacks and is associated with diseases such as lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), with thousands of deaths and hospitalisations every year.

The analysis does not include potential wider benefits to the UK economy of meeting WHO air quality guidelines including preventing early retirement, the benefit to the voluntary sectors or impacts on consumer behaviour, meaning this analysis is likely to be conservative.

As well as the health benefits, CBI Economics analysis estimates that workers in Greater Manchester could increase their earnings by a total of £16m each year (£900m nationally).

For instance, an employee that lives and works for a longer number of years following an improvement in air quality, will earn wages for the additional time they spend in work.

The Clean Air Fund is urging the Government to include a legally binding commitment to meet WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the Environment Bill, which is due to be debated in Parliament in the Autumn.

Some local authorities announced the introduction of Clean Air Zones with the aim of improving air quality locally. Clean Air Zones were due to be launched in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds in 2020, but have since been postponed until at least 2021, possibly indefinitely, while Greater Manchester’s plans have been delayed until 2022.

Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, said: “We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier, too.

“If businesses and government work together to ensure clean air for all, we can protect our health and re-energise the economy at this critical time. Ministers must commit to binding targets to cut air pollution in line with WHO guidelines by 2030.”

Damian Waters, CBI regional director for the North West, said: “Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address the climate emergency, there’s also a striking economic rationale. That’s why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on green recovery should be central to our COVID-19 response.

“From mass energy efficiency programmes to building new sustainable transport infrastructure, the green economy offers incredible opportunities for the UK.

“Improving air quality should be a key part of this programme, with government and local authorities working together to deliver that goal.

“With air pollution hitting the balance sheets of businesses across the country, and cutting the earnings of their employees, cleaning up our air would help us to lead healthier and more productive lives, while delivering a green jobs boost for the economy.”