Air Quality News talks to Larissa Lockwood, director of clean air at the environmental change charity Global Action Plan.
Today, Global Action Plan is coordinating the fifth Clean Air Day, the UK’s largest air pollution campaign where thousands of people will come together from across the country to raise awareness and celebrate the benefits of cleaner air. Air Quality News got in touch with Larissa Lockwood, director of clean air to find out more about this year’s events and hear how they got to this point.
‘Back in 2017 there was very little public information about air quality,’ Larissa tells Air Quality News.
‘We knew we had to do something to change this and so we were talking to the likes of Public Health England to say we needed a national public health campaign. But we quickly realised we weren’t getting very far with this and so we thought why not set up a Clean Air Day. There’s a day for everything nowadays so we thought, how hard can it be?’
Since 2017, Clean Air Day has continued to grow. Last year, with the first ever Clean Air Day Live, Global Action Plan saw more than 2,000 individuals and organisations join in. This year, with a mix of online and in-person actions, Global Action Plan expects an even greater response.
‘I think one of the main reasons why the Clean Air Day model is so successful is because it’s not just Global Action Plan doing the action. We coordinate the campaign, but really it’s on behalf of 250 plus organisations and thousands of participants who take the resources and do action on a local level to reach their own audiences.’
This year, many organisations are hosting their own Clean Air Day events. Great Ormond Street is running an education programme for their clinical staff to teach them how to communicate with patients about air pollution. Bristol City Council is looking at the health inequalities within black and brown communities and Environmental Protection Scotland has launched their own local campaign and are creating colouring books for schools to help educate children.
But this year, the focus of Clean Air Day is more on the collective and less on the individual.
‘We know that when we say “do what you can to tackle air pollution,” that there’s only so much individuals can do,’ explains Larissa.
‘On Clean Air Day people might cycle to work as a one off but they might find it to be scary or dangerous. If there were segregated cycle lanes then they might be willing to do it more often.
‘It’s all well and good to tell people to drive an electric vehicle, but if they’re too expensive and there isn’t enough charging infrastructure then what do you expect people to do?’
‘We want to encourage people to take action themselves, but then we want to empower them to tell decision makers to make a change. Everyone has a role to play to support what is going on in their local area but I think it’s important that all of the onus isn’t just on the individual. We need the whole of society to respond; we need businesses, industry and governments to take action, we need systemic change.’
As well as focusing on the importance of collective action, this year’s Clean Air Day will pay particular attention to the impact that air pollution has on children.
In a study commissioned by Global Action Plan last year, researchers at the University of Manchester revealed that maintaining lower air pollution levels by 20% could improve the development of a child’s working memory by 6%, the equivalent of four weeks of extra learning time per year.
‘After the year we’ve just had I think we owe it to children to let them play and learn in a healthy environment.
‘Children are one of the most vulnerable groups to air pollution for a number of reasons, namely because they’re smaller they’re actually closer to the source of the emissions. They also breathe faster so they inhale more and their bodies and brains are still developing meaning they’re very vulnerable to the impacts.
‘It’s really important that we clean up the air for future generations, this year we want to really seize the moment and have our say to protect children’s health.’
Larissa has spent over six years working for Global Action Plan and in that time a lot has changed; the first Clean Air Zones have been implemented, 9-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the world to have air pollution on their death certificate, and we all saw the benefits of cleaner air when the world came to a standstill in March 2020.
But despite this progress, Larissa is clear that we still have a very long way to go.
‘As a country, I want people to really understand their own personal contributions to air pollution so it becomes a personal issue that people feel empowered to change but I also want to see targets and standards that we can all work towards and a national public health campaign dedicated towards air pollution.
‘School streets should become mainstream, we need better electric vehicle infrastructure, better provisions for walking and cycling, better public transport links and working from home should be normalised. We all need to play our part through individual actions but we also need to be empowered to call on authorities to make the bigger systemic changes.’
This article first appeared in the Air Quality News magazine which is available to view here.
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