London mayor Sadiq Khan’s efforts to expand the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) as part of a push to reduce air pollution and improve health, is politically courageous and an example for mayors around the world, says the World Health Organization’s environment, climate change and health director, Maria Neira.
In an exclusive interview for The BMJ’s climate issue, Neira says she is tired of listening to politicians speak on climate change as if they didn't have the power to act.
“Sometimes you see big politicians talking and using the language of an activist, which is great. But then don't forget that they have the power. You are the prime minister, so don't tell me, tell yourself and then make the right decisions,” she said.
Neira is unsurprised that Khan has faced huge opposition to ULEZ from political opponents and among the public, and believes the upset around these initiatives often disappears fairly quickly once people see the positive impact.
She argues that climate change could be the “ultimate” public health opportunity, but we need politicians to act, and she urges leaders around the world to have more political courage when it comes to tackling pollution and climate change.
This is echoed in an editorial by The BMJ’s editor-in-chief Kamran Abbasi and colleagues, who argue that our response to the climate emergency requires courage, collaboration, and the wisdom to learn from others.
Health professionals have warned about the impact of the climate emergency on the planet and on human health for decades, they write. But recent backpedalling on climate targets in the UK “illustrates how denialism and delay are too often chosen over political commitment and courage.”
The unwillingness of political parties to commit to ambitious climate targets may also be linked to their vested interests and funding, they add. However, this short term thinking is out of step with the majority of voters, who cite the climate emergency as a key concern.
“Achieving net zero will require governments and companies to make long term investments and implement whole systems change,” they write. “As well as being the right thing to do, it makes economic sense.”
Also in this issue:
Interactions between air pollutants linked to increased deaths: Compelling new evidence from 372 cities shows that interactions between two common air pollutants—fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3)—are linked to increased deaths, particularly in high latitude regions and during cold seasons. The findings suggest an urgent need for coordinated strategies that consider the interactive effects of air pollutants and their implications for global health.
Study examines how floods kill, long after the water has gone: Deaths after a major flood reach a peak at around 25 days, last for up to 60 days, and are not limited to deaths caused directly by flooding. The study, from 34 countries, found a rise in heart and lung related deaths in the weeks after a flood, especially in poorer and older communities. The authors call for better awareness and improved disaster response strategies to help cut the number of avoidable deaths.
Air pollution should be listed on death certificates: Medical professionals are calling for national guidance on the inclusion of air pollution on death certificates. “Only by counting the consequences can we expose the harms from air pollution and create the widespread awareness needed to bring about policy change and protect the right of every person to breathe clean air,” they argue.
Clean air bill “desperately needed”: The UK Clean Air Bill is desperately needed to ensure air pollution is brought under control, argues asthma patient Olivia Fulton. She describes how “going out for a walk can be a bit of a gamble” and says ill health caused by air pollution “has a knock-on effect on all aspects of life for someone with asthma, and for the lives of their relatives and friends.”
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We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that JD is a trustee of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. FW was the sustainability fellow at The BMJ and Greener NHS 2022-23, and is a freelance clinical editor at The BMJ.