Climate crisis: air pollution threatens national safety

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Wildfires and air pollution are among the major risks facing the UK – with the most vulnerable at the sharp end

Anita Mureithi

Wildfires, poor air quality, extreme temperatures and heatwaves are some of the most significant threats to the UK, a new government risk assessment has revealed. But experts say the report does nothing to stop vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of climate catastrophe.

This week the Cabinet Office updated its National Risk Register, aimed at helping the UK prepare for significant threats.

According to the analysis, 50% to 70% of the UK population could be affected by a long period of high temperatures, exceeding 40°C in some areas. In the “reasonable worst-case scenario” this could last for over five days.

The chance of extreme heat sits between 1% and 25% and would have a “significant” impact, leading to excess deaths, disruption to transport networks, supply chains, power supplies and water supplies, as well as social and economic disruption. Other climate-related threats include reservoir and dam collapses, storms, flooding and drought.

But Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment told openDemocracy the register doesn’t say what is being done to protect the vulnerable communities who will be worst affected by the impacts of these events.

He added: “We know very well that those who are most at risk from heat and air pollution are people who have underlying health conditions. And those who are most vulnerable to things like flooding are those with limited ability, so those who aren’t able to get out quickly. It’s not clear that we have sufficient plans in place that you would be able to carry out an evacuation quickly.”

The report, published days after Rishi Sunak called for a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods and declared himself on the side of drivers, also found air pollution was “the largest environmental risk to UK public health” and was “linked with reduced lifespans”.

Agnes Agyepong, CEO of Global Black Maternal Health and founder of the Black Child Clean Air Report told openDemocracy that she is “deeply concerned about the impact of climate-related risks and air quality, particularly on vulnerable communities”.

Government data from 2022 showed air pollution contributes to up to 43,000 deaths in the UK each year. It also showed that with an estimated 4,000 deaths each year caused by air pollution, London has the highest percentage of deaths attributable to poor air quality. And a report commissioned by London mayor Sadiq Khan found Black, minoritised, and poorer communities bear the brunt of toxic air exposure in London.

Agyepong added: “We must ensure that [these] policies and interventions take into account the unique challenges faced by the most disadvantaged communities to achieve true equity.

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“The prediction of longer, drier summers due to climate change poses significant risks to critical infrastructure, utilities, and the environment. These disruptions disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, already burdened with socio-economic hardships.”

A Global Black Maternal Health report found that although Black communities in London are more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution than White or Asian communities, almost half of Black mothers say there are gaps in knowledge about air pollution and its effect on pregnancies such as an increased likelihood of stillbirths, and increased chances of pre-term births and miscarriages.

Just Stop Oil also took issue with the fact climate change itself was described as a “chronic risk” and therefore not included in the risk register, which only dealt with “acute risks”.

Speaking to OpenDemocracy just days after the government granted hundreds of new oil and gas licences in the UK, a spokesperson for the direct action group said: “We are asked to trust that the government is managing climate risks through its operational work but we know, because the UK Climate Change Committee has revealed, that this simply isn’t true. The government is failing in its fundamental duty to protect the public by adequately preparing for climate breakdown.”

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