Power, Policy, and Pollution: what’s the influence of local community groups on the politics of air pollution?

Written by Emma Hibbett, PhD student at Grantham Institute – Climate Change and Environment & Centre for Environmental Policy 

COVID-19 has catapulted air pollution into the political foreground as new evidence is emerging which connects coronavirus fatality to air pollution exposure. In the UK, air pollution is already the largest environmental threat; responsible for 36,000 deaths and 3 million lost working days each year. Although the UK government has taken steps to manage the crisis of pollution, 15 million people still live in areas with pollution levels that exceed WHO guidelines for particulate matter.

How politicians decide to manage air pollution matters; whose voice, knowledge, and experiences are included in policy making process will influence the types of solutions that emerge. In a democratic society, local communities should be able to have their voices heard in decisions which affect their lives. However, in air pollution policy making, some community voices are excluded from this process, resulting in policies which do not always reflect the experiences of local people. Often, the most excluded voices are those of the most vulnerable, who disproportionately experience the health impacts of air pollution. In London, for example, just 2% of the capital’s richest experience NO2 levels which exceed EU limits, compared to almost half of the most deprived communities.

Polluted London

When the stakes are this high, it is crucial that the experiences of all are included into policy making in order to ensure that solutions benefit everybody. Community inclusion in policy making is even more critical in times of crisis, but this is when exclusion is at its worst. During the pandemic, local authorities have rushed to pass emergency measures without consulting communities, resulting in tensions and policies which overlook the experiences of certain communities.

My PhD work examines these critical questions of voice and inclusion in our society. To do this, I explore how different community groups do, or do not, gain access to political decision making, and what resources and relationships help them to influence policy making.

My preliminary results highlight critical tensions in our democracy regarding who gets to speak, and who is heard. COVID has brought these tensions in sharp focus; providing an exemplar case of whose voices and experiences are represented in policy change. If we are to successfully transition towards a zero pollution future, we must prioritise these questions of representation and justice. If not, we will continue to exclude vulnerable communities from solutions which are supposed to build a fairer, healthier, and more just society.

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