A foggy city landscape of chimneys and high rise buildings

For Earth Day 2023 Catherine Rennie and Peter Williams of People's Health Trust discuss how the climate crisis and health inequalities are intrinsically linked and the disproportionate impacts on people who are marginalised and disadvantaged in the UK.

On a global scale, the injustice of the impact of the climate crisis on those who have contributed the least to its creation is well documented. This injustice is reflected in the UK too, where the direct and indirect health effects of climate change will not be felt equally across society.

A 2020 Institute of Health Equity report, commissioned by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, highlighted four key areas for action in tackling climate change and health inequalities together. These are minimising air pollution; building energy-efficient homes; promoting sustainable and healthy food and prioritising active and safe transport. Here, we examine the inequalities of air pollution and housing.

Air pollution contributes to up to 36,000 deaths every year in the UK and its effects on health are clear. Official UK government advice is that even when there is moderate air pollution, adults and children with lung or heart problems should limit physical activity. In 2020, a coroner made legal history by ruling that air pollution was a cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, which has led to the campaign for Ella’s Law - the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill. The Bill was introduced to Parliament by Baroness Jenny Jones last year, and if enacted, would force the government to bring air quality in every community up to minimum World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. A study published this week by Imperial College London, commissioned by the Greater London Authority, found air pollution causes harm to people at all stages of life – from before they have been born to old age - and it affects multiple aspects of physical and mental health.

Air pollution and climate change are closely linked: both are driven largely by burning fossil fuels either through industry or our homes and vehicles, and hot weather makes smog more likely to form.

There is evidence that air pollution affects people living in areas experiencing disadvantage the most. A study from 2019 found that people in disadvantaged areas are more affected by air pollution from road traffic than those living in affluent areas, yet residents in these areas contribute the least to it. This is mainly due to the impact of air pollution in large cities and lower levels of car ownership in disadvantaged areas.

This injustice applies to exposure to extreme heat too. Summer 2022 saw the first ever red extreme heat warning being issued across parts of England, and the increasing frequency, duration, and intensity of these events has been clearly clinked to global warming. A 2022 study by the University of Manchester and Friends of the Earth, which explored the uneven impact of heatwaves in the UK, found that ‘high-risk neighbourhoods for heat’ actually have lower carbon footprints than average, meaning that these communities are facing the consequences of the actions of others.

The University of Manchester study also found that people of colour are more likely to live in high risk neighbourhoods for heat than the national average. Highest-risk neighbourhoods are most commonly found in Birmingham, Nottingham, and the London Boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney.

There is an unavoidable link between ensuring our homes do not have a negative impact on our health, and achieving net zero. Essential to this is keeping homes from being either too cold or too hot.

Whilst people living in higher income households are more likely to live in retrofitted homes or have enough money to heat their homes, and to adapt their homes to hotter weather, people living on lower incomes are more likely to live with poor housing conditions, and to experience fuel poverty. Most UK homes are currently unfit for the challenges of climate change and ensuring new social housing is low carbon and adapting existing homes is a win for improving our homes and health and achieving net zero.

Last month, People’s Health Trust signed up to the Funder Commitment to Climate Change. This brings together grant-making charities to connect, exchange, share challenges and progress around integrating climate into their work. Through this commitment, we are focusing on six key areas of work that cover our operations, programmes and communications.

We are talking to, and sharing stories from, our funded partners who are taking action in their local areas to improve health through their local environment - from community gardening and food growing, sustainable transport and bringing people together to discuss challenges at both a local and global level.

Solutions to the climate crisis require bold action from global and national leaders. Local government and local communities also have a role to play, and the four key areas for action highlighted in the Institute of Health Equity’s Sustainable Health Equity report all require close planning between local authorities and communities.

Find out more about how our environment impacts our health.

Find out more from the impact from air pollution and solutions from Health Equals partner Global Action Plan.

Catherine Rennie, Peter Williams.

Catherine is the Communications and Public Affairs Manager and Peter was Network and Communications Officer at People's Health Trust.

A foggy city landscape of chimneys and high rise buildings