Jonny Hughes: More than just bees face threat from airborne pollution

It's more than just bees facing a threat from airborne pollution. Picture: Thinkstock
It's more than just bees facing a threat from airborne pollution. Picture: Thinkstock
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We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the hazards facing bees from powerful new agricultural chemicals and of the rich diversity of wildlife in the oceans being threatened by plastic pollution.

Several types of neonicotinoid pesticide have now been banned in the EU and we are finally beginning to see policies emerging to tackle the tide of marine waste, including a long overdue Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles in Scotland.

Last week saw a stark report on another type of pollution from the EU Court of Auditors. This report found that toxic air causes 400,000 Europeans to die prematurely every year, ten times more than the number of people dying in car accidents. Around 40,000 of these deaths happen in the UK – one of eleven countries failing to kerb emissions in line with agreed EU-wide targets. Air pollution is associated with Asian megacities but in reality this has never been a problem confined to Beijing or New Delhi – it’s long been a problem in Scotland.

The Lancet estimates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of premature disease and death, responsible for 16 per cent of all deaths worldwide. But for whatever reason, governments tend to put off acting decisively until the weight of evidence becomes so overwhelming, public opinion becomes so loud, or the threat of legal action becomes imminent.

Plastic pollution in the oceans is nothing new. The ornithologist Marie Azzarello wrote in 1987: “The widespread presence of plastic particles in the marine environment have profound effects on birds inhabiting the world’s oceans.” Similarly, nicotine-based insecticides have been suspected as a cause of bee declines for many years. Even now, the policies being taken to address these pollutants may be too little too late.

With air pollution, the kicking-the-can-down-the-road routine has reached farcical levels. Through a process called “inventory adjustment”, a number of countries, including the UK, have on multiple occasions applied to raise the limit of the amount of pollutants they can emit under EU rules.

Most recently, the ceilings have been raised for nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). These pollutants can decrease lung function, cause respiratory conditions and have recently been linked to increased risk of diabetes and dementia. By changing the goal posts, the UK government has avoided expensive fines but in doing so has created higher costs for the NHS, and damaged people’s future health.

It’s time to stop the can kicking and take action on air pollution. A rapid shift to electric vehicles fuelled by renewable energy is no longer futuristic thinking – if the right investment is made it could be reality in a short few years.

Creating connected urban greenspaces will not only help soak up pollutants, they will encourage people to walk or cycle to school and work along pleasant, nature-rich corridors. The positive effects of reducing car dependency will be manifold: better health, re-energized neighbourhoods and cities better adapted to a changing climate. Low Emissions Zones are common in other parts of Europe, and whilst it’s good to see a Scottish Government promise of four areas by 2020, more will certainly be needed in areas worst affected by exhaust emissions.

Acting decisively on pollution will save money, save lives, and help restore the wider environment. We can all help through actions in our daily lives and by calling on governments at all levels to stop stalling and start acting.

• Jonny Hughes is the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust