Can we really put a price on public health when it comes to air quality?

Would you prefer to have cleaner air in Sheffield or £1000 in the back pocket? Can we put a price on public health and air quality?

From Volkswagen spewing a million tons of pollution into UK air due to inaccurate emissions tests, to the government being ordered by High court to publish a clean air plan ahead of the elections, it’s safe to say that air quality is an important topic of late. In fact 698 people died prematurely in South Yorkshire last year as a result of poor air quality.

In 2015 the Conservative government cut solar rooftop subsidies by 65%. Amber Rudd, then secretary of state for energy and climate change, said her priority was to ensure that energy bills were kept as low as possible for hardworking families and businesses. The buck doesn’t stop there. Rudd  also scrapped subsidies to onshore wind farms, stopped the conversion of fossil-fueled power stations into biomass-fueled ones, killed off a green homes scheme and screeched to a stop the tax break for green car owners.

She also abandoned a decade-long plan for all new homes to be zero carbon from 2016. And finally, she went back on her word and opened England, Wales and Scotland up to fracking.

But should we put economic prosperity over issues of climate change and air quality?

John Grant thinks there should be no contest. A senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, his research focuses on issues to do with renewable energy systems, climate change and how we can build in a sustainable way.

“We’re losing 200 species a day! That’s the extinction rate due to climate change. When I close my eyes, that’s the horror that I see burning.”

John tells me he would have loved to have gone into film making or something frivolous, but feels he had no choice when he saw on a scientific level the effect climate change was having on the world.

He believes the onus isn’t just on the government but on everyone. When talking about air quality, John thinks one reason the general public don’t do more to diminish their environmental footprint is because they can’t see how bad the air actually is: “Soot levels have declined, but it is the invisible particulates which people don’t see that are the real threat to the public.

“Humans are very visual creatures, so if they don’t see things dirty, perhaps you don’t feel that there’s a problem.”

According to the World Health Organisation, there are 3 million deaths a year caused from the effects of air pollution; 40,000 within England; 500 within Sheffield.

In order to improve Sheffield’s air quality, he believes we all need to accept what he called a degradation in our quality of life. This means walking to Tesco Express for that pint of milk, even in the rain. The irony is, more exercise would make us healthier, happier and save us money.

The Dept. for Environment and Rural Affairs recently highlighted that there had been a 15% increase in vehicle mileage in Sheffield from 1993 to 2010. And although there had been a decrease in some of the annual concentrations in roadside pollution, it was still having a negative effect on the populations of towns and cities.

Despite being hailed as ‘the outdoor city’, Sheffield was recently ranked the least-fit city in the UK; lagging far behind its Northern neighbours Leeds and Manchester.

Looking to the Dutch.

Despite deep cuts to clean energy, the UK government did recently announce a long term plan to promote and encourage people to take to the streets on bikes and by foot. They have set aside £1.2bn to help improve cycling infrastructure, including routes between city centres and local communities. There will be £80 million available for training courses and £389 million to be split between councils, who can then invest in local projects. Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has said he wants to make cycling more accessible to everyone.

Although the Netherlands are not exempt from having issues with high levels of nitrogen and poor air quality, they are going the right way in tackling this issue. 36% of people listed a bicycle as their most common means of transport and cars give way to bikes in cities such as Utrecht, where routes are well maintained, well-used and extensive. In 2015 there were 35,000 kilometers of cycle lanes snaking their way through the Netherlands. Traffic deaths have also been steadily falling since 1996.

Take part in our twitter poll: