With all eyes on the UK as host of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, this is the perfect opportunity to review the progress that has been made to protect and improve the health of future generations in Wales through clean air initiatives.
One of the many lessons the pandemic has reminded us of is that a healthy population is better protected from long-term health conditions and infections.
Action on pollution and climate change therefore does not only look after our planet. It can also play an integral part in improving population health and, in doing so, building resilience. We therefore welcomed Welsh Government’s declaration of a climate emergency back in April 2019.
Other than this signal, we have seen some other actions from Welsh Government. 50mph speed limits have been introduced on some of the busiest and most polluting stretches of road in Wales, councils have been supported to invest in further active travel opportunities, and pilot schemes have been funded in Swansea to monitor air quality and divert traffic away from pollution hotspots.
However with some of Wales’ poorest areas, which have the highest levels of health inequality, also experiencing the poorest air quality, more needs to be done to support and improve the health of the nation as a whole.
Introducing a Clean Air Act for Wales, creating a new National Forest for Wales, committing to build 20,000 new low carbon social homes and plans to decarbonise older homes are all clear signals of the Welsh Government’s intention to act on climate change and air pollution.
Actions speak louder than words however, and Welsh Government must pick up the pace.
All parties represented in the Senedd committed to a Clean Air Act in their 2021 manifestos (1). Additionally, Welsh Government previously launched a White Paper on a Clean Air Bill during the last Senedd term (2). With collective will in place for this to happen, and with the ball already rolling, it is fair to say that more could already have been done to progress a Clean Air Act despite this Senedd being just six months' old.
Immediate action is required to reduce air pollution levels through the expansion of further clean air zones to protect Welsh communities as British Lung Foundation research shows people with long-term lung conditions are at a high risk of severe illness from viruses (3). Hand in hand with this must be the roll out of better air quality monitoring, particularly in areas where the most vulnerable in our society live.
Last Senedd term also saw the launch of other ambitious targets. The ‘Electric Vehicle Charging Strategy for Wales’ from Welsh Government predicts that Wales needs between 30,000 and 55,000 electric vehicle charging points by 2030 (4). However, as of October 2021 Wales has just 1,002 charging points according the Zap Map, the UK’s leading app for mapping Electric Vehicle charge points (5).
Similarly, more ambition is urgently needed if their target of building 20,000 new low carbon social homes is to be met considering that, since 2000, an average of just 15 council homes have been built per year in Wales (6).
No one can accuse this Welsh Government of lacking ambition when it comes to climate change and pollution, however ambition alone is not enough.
If Welsh Government is therefore able to match its climate change ambitions with appropriate action, then we have the opportunity to take a significant step towards ensuring we not only have a greener Wales, but a healthier Wales.
Michael Thomas is chair of the BMA Welsh committee for public health medicine
COP26 is the 26th UN Climate Change Conference and is taking place in Glasgow from 31 October 2021 and 12 November 2021 under the co-presidency of the UK and Italy
(1) Moving Wales Forward: Welsh Labour 2021 Manifesto, page 12
(1) Vote for Wales: Plaid Cymru 2021 Manifesto, page 49
(3) British Lung Foundation “Coronavirus and living with a lung condition”