The UK could see a £1.6 billion boost a year to the economy if air pollution was reduced to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, a report says.
The research by CBI Economics, commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, said cutting pollution to WHO guideline levels – which are stricter than UK legal limits – could prevent 17,000 early deaths a year of working age people.
And it would save the loss of three million working days a year from people taking time off with illness or to care for sick children as a result of air pollution, the report said.
It also suggests that workers would benefit from £900 million more in annual earnings due to being in work more.
The £1.6 billion boost to the UK economy from reductions in early deaths, sickness absence and lower productivity is in addition to savings to the NHS and social care budgets that cleaning up the air can deliver, the report said.
The report by CBI Economics, the economic analysis arm of the business body, looked at the financial benefits of reducing levels of toxic pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles known as PM2.5.
These pollutants cause a range of health impacts, including raising the risk of asthma, heart attacks and strokes, and are linked to health conditions such as lung disease and cancer and can harm children’s development.
As well as calculating the economic impact on the UK as a whole, it also looked in detail at the boost to four major cities, with London predicted to see a £480 million benefit.
Manchester could see economic benefits to the tune of £28 million from the stricter air pollution limits, while for Birmingham the figure is £25 million and in Bristol it would be £7 million, the report suggests.
The Clean Air Fund is calling on the Government to include a legally binding commitment to meet the WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the Environmental Bill which is due to be debated in Parliament this autumn.
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.”
Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist of the CBI, said: “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.
“That is why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on a green recovery should be central to our Covid-19 response.”
She said there were “incredible opportunities” from shifting to a greener economy, such as mass energy efficiency programmes and new sustainable transport infrastructure, and that improving air quality should be a key part of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
“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,” she said.
An Environment Department (Defra) spokesperson said: “The World Health Organisation 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.”
Picture: Ferrybridge Power Station, West Yorkshire. (John Giles/PA).