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Simon Birkett is the founder of the Campaign for Clean Air in London
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CAMPAIGN HERO: Simon Birkett of the Campaign for Clean Air in London

Matilda Lee

15th November, 2010

Simon Birkett founded the cross-party Campaign for Clean Air in London (CCAL) in 2006 which aims to achieve World Health Organisation standards of air quality. He believes that if we comply with relevant laws Britain can show the world in 2012 how to successfully tackle air quality, climate change and sustainability issues...

What has been your most successful campaign to date?

Showing that the previous Government was responsible for one of the biggest public health failings or ‘cover-ups' by a government in modern history.

For years we had been told there were 1,031 premature deaths due to air pollution in London in 2005 and some 12,000 to 24,000 per annum nationally. Research showed these estimates related to short-term exposure with the former due to dangerous airborne particles (so called PM10) and the range comprising 8,100 from PM10, 3,500 from sulphur dioxide (SO2) and 700 to 12,500 from ozone (O3).

It was very odd though that the United States' Environmental Protection Agency and others had published estimates attributable to long-term exposure while the UK had not. With much help, I calculated there were 3,460 such deaths in London and 35,000 nationally in 2005.

Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee accepted these estimates saying: 'Air quality must be given a higher priority for Government. Defra must raise the profile of the issue by publicising the latest data on premature deaths more widely and making clear the benefits of improving air quality'.  The Mayor of London subsequently published an estimate of 4,267 premature deaths in London in 2008.

The new Government has confirmed that the new national calculations are correct.

What has been your least successful campaign to date?

I have been disappointed that Mayor Johnson has taken so many backward steps on air quality when big leaps forward are needed. For example, if he had planned to keep the western extension of the congestion charging zone he would have had plenty of money to support the drivers affected by Phase 3 of the low emission zone (which was intended to reduce harmful emissions to protect some 15 per cent of those worst effected by bad air quality in London) and introduce it as originally planned in October 2010 instead of January 2012 as now planned.

Also the Mayor should have been insisting on the latest abatement kit for London's buses in the short-term and the fast roll-out of electric vehicles in the medium and long-term not hybrid buses in the medium-term which seems likely to compromise the much needed short and long-term solutions. Health-based air quality laws are still breached by a factor two near the busiest streets in London. The Mayor must be congratulated though for publishing the first up-to-date official estimates of premature deaths due to air pollution.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

It is essential to engage with those who'll listen. Before taking up campaigning full time, I used to work in the Corporate Sustainability department in HSBC's head office. I have been very struck by the number of big companies that ‘get it' and the absolute need for air pollution laws to be enforced fully if green companies are to succeed.

What is the best way to motivate people?

Involve them and lead by example. It helps to win a few battles too because it shows people that we can change things.

What is the best way of reaching politicians?

Be assertive rather than aggressive (or passive). It helps a lot if you research your points carefully, argue them coherently and win media coverage. Politicians pay attention when they know you might be quoted or interviewed by the media. Don't be afraid to ‘stick your head above the parapet' - it is the first step to get something done.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

Being seen as irrational. You will be ‘shut out' and ignored very quickly if you sound ‘shrill'.

Most important thing government could do this year?

Communicate the dangers of local air pollution to the public and politicians. They should do this by publishing estimates for the number of premature deaths due to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles (PM2.5) for every local authority in the country for a particular year or per year. At the recent Care4Air conference in Sheffield, 89% of people said they wanted this information and 93% said they would welcome guidance on the careful interpretation of it.

Most important thing individuals could do this year?

Protect themselves from the dangers of air pollution as much as possible. One example would be to walk or cycle down side streets rather than arterial roads where pollution levels are much higher. Similarly, people could do much to reduce air pollution for themselves and others such as by walking or cycling, using public transport or driving electric, petrol or hybrid vehicles in cities instead of the more polluting diesel ones. These actions have many parallels with the adaptation and mitigation need to address climate change.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

You have to acknowledge the success of the 2M campaign against the third runway at Heathrow. My father-in-law, Lord Marshall, used to run British Airways. We get on very well and agree that air quality laws must be complied with around Heathrow.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

Tony Juniper. He has accomplished many things but the campaign led by Friends of the Earth on the Climate Change Act, while Tony was Executive Director, was remarkable and transformational.

Campaign for Clean Air in London

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