Cars and their exhaust fumes at traffic lights

+ Incentives to scrap diesel cars would be one way to improve air quality.

The World Health Organisation’s most recent estimate attributes one in eight premature deaths around the world to air pollution. Cleaner air could save millions of lives. So what can we do? I believe the answer lies in the right mixture of incentives and penalties.

The main contributors to air pollution are industry and cars. They are the primary causes of the Beijing smog my colleague Chas Pope wrote about recently. Almost all large urban conurbations are affected by poor air quality, this is a worldwide issue and not one that only impacts developing nations.  

It’s not as if these cities don’t have air quality targets. Many do. But all too often these targets come second to economics – countries fear that tackling pollution would harm their economies. So it needs more than just targets.

You could look to address the problem at source, such as compelling the big car companies to act. Any financial penalties or taxes levied could be ring-fenced to invest in non-polluting infrastructure such as electric buses or improving cycling infrastructure.

It would be politically difficult, as these companies’ plants are vital to the economies of their local areas. And any costs would inevitably be passed on to the consumer. But wouldn’t you, as a consumer, be prepared to pay a little more to know you were breathing clean air? I know I would.

Of course, it’s not as if air pollution isn’t costing us all anyway. The European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution costs Europe up to £149bn a year due to things like the cost of caring for people with respiratory illnesses.

Sadly, these costs aren’t at the top of the agenda for many countries. This is why you need effective incentives too. You need solutions that you could show would both tackle air pollution and boost the economy.

An example of such a measure could be taken from Singapore, here you have to replace a vehicle after 10 years or pay a substantial fee. This ensures cleaner, more modern vehicles make up a much larger proportion of the fleet than they otherwise would. And the car companies certainly aren’t going to argue with compelling people to buy their latest products.

In the UK, the Environmental Audit Committee has suggested a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, which emit hazardous particles. I believe this is the sort of big step we need if we’re really going to tackle air pollution.