Polluted air in the UK causes 3m working days to be lost every year owing to people getting sick or taking time off to care for sick children, new research suggests.
Cutting air pollution and meeting the World Health Organization standards would benefit the economy by about GBP1.6bn a year, by improving productivity, according to the analysis carried out by the CBI. About 17,000 premature deaths of working age people each year would be prevented by meeting the guidelines.
Workers would also see more pay, with about GBP900m a year in extra wages from the increased time at work. The GBP1.6bn economic uplift does not include the reduced costs to the NHS and social care budgets, estimated at GBP157m a year, which would also result from lower sickness rates.
Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist of the CBI, said employers and the government should aim for a “green recovery” from the coronavirus crisis, by investing in public transport and energy efficiency.
“Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address air pollution and the impact it has on human health and the environment, there’s also a striking economic rationale,” she said. “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.”
The government has been pushing people to get back into the office, following the sharp rise in people working from home during the coronavirus lockdowns, with warnings of job losses if they fail to return. Ministers are motivated by concern over the loss of business to companies, from public transport providers to sandwich shops, that rely on people in offices.
Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, which commissioned the report from CBI Economics, said this call could be counterproductive unless the government and local authorities made it easier for people to use cleaner modes of transport.
Data compiled by the group found a 25% reduction in NO2 emissions in London during the morning rush hour and a 34% fall at evening commuting times, during the lockdown.
“Encouraging people into their cars will increase pollution,” Burston warned. “The government needs to consider that building back the economy is not just about going back to the physical office. Theconsequences for air pollution are consequences for the economy, and the economic benefits [of reducing air pollution] are significant.”
The report found that work absences alone related to poor air were costing Britain about GBP600m a year, owing to people missing work from poor health but also from taking time off to look after children, who are among the worst affected by air pollution.
Jacob West, director of healthcare innovation at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Adopting ambitious World Health Organization guidelines could not only add years to our life, but also benefit the country’s finances. These encouraging figures should give the government confidence to embrace tougher air pollution limits in the environment bill.”
The government’s environment bill has been delayed, but is set to return to parliament this autumn. However, as currently written it will not contain new targets on air pollution. Any binding new targets, to take over from the EU’s regulations, will not be set out until late 2022, after a consultation.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The World Health Organization has praised our clean air strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow, and we continue to take robust and comprehensive action to tackle emissions in the UK. But we know there is more to do, which is why through our landmark environment bill we have committed to setting ambitious targets to improve air quality in the long term, and address the concentration of damaging fine particulate matter.”