Comment: Global Action Plan’s Co-CEO Chris Large explains why 15 leading UK businesses are seeking to prevent cities going back to pre-lockdown pollution levels by launching the Business for Clean Air initiative

Nearly three-quarters of the UK population, 72%, think that clean air is even more important now, because coronavirus can affect people’s lungs. Professors Stephen Holgate from University of Southampton and Frank Kelly from King’s College London confirmed to Global Action Plan that health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and COPD make sufferers more vulnerable to complications if they contract Covid-19.

If the health crisis isn’t enough reason for businesses to act, the public has noticed that business might be a part of the problem. In a survey we conducted during lockdown, 74% of the public agreed with the statement that “businesses need to do more to cut pollution and traffic after the lockdown so that neighbourhoods don’t go back to the way they were”; 57% of people were worried about the increased level of traffic when lockdown was lifted.

Global Action Plan is an environmental charity that works with schools, hospitals, businesses, government and the public to take action on air pollution. We know that the business community has an important role to play in cleaning up air across the UK, with 30% of particulate matter caused by industry and half of all road miles travelled being for business purposes. This is why we have launched the Business for Clean Air initiative (B4CA).

Building an element of remote working into the working practice of all those that it suits could take 11 billion miles of car driving off the UK’s roads

Fifteen businesses ranging from Landsec to Philips have joined the initiative on its launch, declaring their intention to play their part in tackling air pollution by developing a Clean Air Plan for their business. Signatories to B4CA have committed to developing a plan to tackle air pollution relevant to their business using the available framework of actions, such as transitioning to electric fleets, encouraging staff to work flexibly, and ensuring products they sell don’t cause air pollution.

The clean air future we envisage has cleaner air for everyone. This is especially important for those communities where pollution is worst, which also tend to be where child poverty is highest. But steps that cut air pollution also lead to a better society: fewer road injuries through reduced traffic levels, fitter lifestyles with more cycling and walking, greater community cohesion with families taking over the streets, and greenspace, al fresco dining, a better work-life balance with more home working – and possibly even more sleep!

This future offers a better background in which companies do business, enhances resilience to disruption, and opens up opportunities for new products and services.

Painted stencils on a London street create pop-up bike lanes following the Covid-19 outbreak. (Credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Lockdown led to the biggest transformation to the UK’s streets in a generation, with emergency travel plans making space for walking, cycling and social distancing, and discouraging car use.

As we emerge from lockdown, however, car use is increasing due to concerns about use of public transport, and many B2C businesses must innovate to help customers travel to their sites. Right now, working with local authorities who can access government funds for new footpaths, bridges and cycle routes could help to bring in the customers and increase takings.

We have also just experienced the greatest change to working practices in years, with around 8 million employees now remote working who were not working from home at all pre-lockdown. We have calculated that building an element of remote working into the working practice of all those that it suits could take 11 billion miles of car driving off the UK’s roads, or one in five car journeys. Embracing remote working is now a critical business continuity skill, and it is also a staff-retention essential: 93% of 18- to 34-year-old employees who worked from home during the lockdown want to continue home-working to some extent post-lockdown.

With 40,000 premature deaths due to air pollution, clearly the responsible thing is to go way beyond compliance

Business action to reduce pollution can also save money. Electric vehicles are now at least breaking even compared with the total cost of ownership of diesel and petrol vehicles. 81% of people said they would be open to wait at least three days for all non-urgent parcels to be delivered if it meant less pollution on their streets, which allows for a much more cost-efficient logistics operation compared with next-day delivery. And just watch those expense bills drop as people meet online instead of flying.

The business world almost exclusively is playing within the “pollution rules”, as laid out in the UK’s environmental regulations (“Dieselgate” being the notable exception), but we still have 40,000 premature deaths. So clearly, the responsible thing is to go way beyond compliance.

The businesses that have signed up to the Clean Air Initiative are responding. They know that air pollution comes from transport, manufacturing, industrial processes, construction, energy generation, agriculture and heating buildings. And while solutions may not yet be available, they are still determined to contribute. And they have understood that clean air is better for business, people and planet.

Global Action Plan, and the Business Clean Air Taskforce, are determined to help many more businesses understand the vital need to act and the benefits we can all reap when we do. I hope that your business joins us, at least for one zoom webinar or a look at one webpage, to see how your business could stand up and be a Business For Clean Air.

The first webinar on the topic of remote working’s impact on air quality. Companies can register here.

Chris Large is co-CEO of Global Action Plan. He runs workplace and community behaviour change programmes and is the architect of the Clean Van Commitment, leading a collective commitment from some of the UK’s largest fleet operators to have a zero tailpipe emission van fleet by 2028.  Chris also led the creation of the Clean Air Day initiative, convening a group of 200 supporter organisations to mobilise action on air pollution across the country.

Main picture credit: Kieran Doherty/Reuters


pandemic. covid-19  Coronavirus  lockdown  remote working  Business for Clean Air Initiative  electric vehicles  Business Clean Air Taskforce 

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