Clean Air in London campaigner Simon Birkett speaks to AirQualityNews.com about the key moments for air quality in 2015 and what the future holds.
“A lot of issues are ongoing, but I think 2015 was a year of a great deal being achieved,” says Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, as he reflects on what is his tenth year campaigning for better air quality. “There have been lots and lots of big steps forward, particularly that many more people at all levels are being engaged in this subject.”
Legal battles, election campaigns, EU legislation, airport expansion, car emission scandals – indeed, so many major events in the past year have helped both policy makers and the public become more conscious of both the causes and impacts of air pollution, whether its at a personal, local, national or international level.
So it is telling that, when asked to pick out the single most important moment from 2015, Mr Birkett can only limit himself to two: “The most important single thing in 2015 was the ClientEarth case and Supreme Court judgement. The timing of that a week or two before the General Election was a really big thing in terms of making the previous government more accountable. That was to me without doubt the biggest thing this year.”
He continues: “But the other big thing was ‘dieselgate’ [triggered by the Volkswagen emissions scandal], which affected the whole world. These are two different things but they both had a big impact.”
Just how important such events have been is clear when you consider how much more a niche issue air quality was on both the political and news agenda just two or three years ago. Now, air quality is front page news, a major election issue and affects share prices at some of the most profitable companies in the world. So has Clean Air in London (CAL) finished the job it set out to do?
“In 2015, the world is now a different place at a local, national and global level. So I think in a sense my role now is redundant,” Mr Birkett says. “In February it will be 10 years since I wrote my first campaigning letter, so in a sense my job is done, but I am personally committed to spending at least another five years on this issue and then I will take stock again.”
Indeed, far from ‘job done’, Mr Birkett’s part in pushing air quality up the political agenda over the last couple of years has more than anything simply heralded a change in tack for CAL. Whereas three years ago Mr Birkett was just one of a handful of people lobbying for better air quality – along with the likes of ClientEarth’s Alan Andrews and Friends of the Earth’s Jenny Bates – he now stands alongside possibly hundreds of local community campaigners, politicians and NGOs who have now also taken on the issue at various levels.
“Because there are now so many people campaigning on local air pollution, the CAL strategy is different, which is to work more on strategic, high impact interventions.” he explains.
Previously, Mr Birkett spent much of his time writing to policy makers and researching and responding to consultations and inquiries. Now, however, he says his time is much better spent picking specific issues which he knows can have a big impact but that others are not so well placed to tackle.
He highlights examples of his work in the last year, such as that which led to the Advertising Standards Authority concluding a TfL advert for the 2020 ultra low emission zones (ULEZ) was “misleading” (see AirQualityNews.com story). He also points to his publication of legal advice from environmental lawyer Robert McCracken QC on the air quality implications for major developments, such as constructing a third runway at Heathrow Airport (see AirQualityNews.com story). In a sense, these sorts of issues are now Mr Birkett’s niche, and he has shown that they can have an important impact.
In addition, of course, Mr Birkett also has his work as a member of the High Level Intergovernmental and Stakeholder Advisory Group for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook, which is due to report in 2018.
2016 and beyond
Yet, at the end of such a hectic year, Mr Birkett – who says he works upwards of 80 hours across seven days each week – is far from warn out, and is keen to talk about not just what 2015 has meant for him, but how all these issues in air quality will run on further next year.
“Next year I think all of these boulders that have started rolling will roll on,” he says.
Indeed, with EU deliberations over legislation, the London Mayor elections in May, the 60th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, continuing legal wrangles between ClientEarth and Defra and ongoing work at the United Nations on air quality, Mr Birkett has “no doubt we will see more of what we have seen in 2015”.
“Next year is about taking the public awareness that we have to a whole new level,” he says. “This issue ain’t going away.”