According to recent Government figures, transport now causes more greenhouse gas pollution than any other sector in the UK, contributing to 26% of emissions. Overall, UK emissions fell by 5%, mainly due to a decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation.
In addition to being the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, transport is also a huge contributor to air pollution. It accounts for 31% of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 18% of particulate matter 10 (PM10) and 19.5% of PM2.5 emissions (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) in the UK.
Together, the transport sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants now make it one of the most polluting sectors in the UK.
Air pollution is a growing public health crisis in the UK, causing many major health problems, such as cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease.
In an effort to cut down on air pollution, the Government has announced that it will end sales of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, which is an important step forward, but on its own it will not be enough to deal with the myriad of health problems linked to air pollution. Moreover, a steady decline in active forms of transport, like walking and cycling, has led to an overall reduction in physical activity and the rise of non-communicable diseases.
Active transport is the most cost-effective way to increase physical activity, reduce ill health and cut down emissions from road transport.
For example, in 2017, Transport for London estimated that if every Londoner walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day, the NHS would save £1.7 billion in treatment costs over the next 25 years.
However, according to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), current investment in active transport represents only a tiny fraction of the £32 billion spent on transport annually. As of 2017, average UK-wide public spending on walking and cycling is £287 million per year (£4.30 per head).
Government, employers, schools, doctors and nurses can all help to promote active transport by encouraging people to walk and cycle more. Expanding cycling networks and cycle-to-work schemes are just a few examples that can help to promote physical activity and active transport.
In our 2016 report, A Breath of Fresh Air: Addressing Air Pollution and Climate Change Together for Health, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change outlined six steps for the UK Government and the health sector to improve air quality and tackle climate change. We have seen much progress in many of these areas, such as the commitment to phase-out remaining coal power stations by 2025, but without stronger policies and investment in active transport, we won’t be able to solve the air pollution crisis and ensure healthier lives for people across the UK.
Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Director, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change