71,000 working days a year lost to air pollution in Birmingham

Reaching WHO targets for air quality could boost Birmingham’s economy by £25m annually as new study shows 71,000 working days a year lost to air pollution under current targets...

Reaching WHO targets for air quality could boost Birmingham’s economy by £25m annually as new study shows 71,000 working days a year lost to air pollution under current targets

Report by CBI Economics, commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, finds:

  • £25m annual economic benefit for Birmingham of reducing air pollution levels to stricter WHO guidelines (£1.6bn across UK)
  • In total, 71,000 working days are lost for Birmingham businesses each year related to air pollution due to workers becoming sick, or taking time off to care for sick children (3 million nationally)
  • Study calculates impact across UK and examines four major cities in detail – with annual economic benefit estimated in London (£480m), Birmingham (£25m), Bristol (£7m) and Manchester (£28m) 
  • Across the UK 17,000 premature deaths could be prevented every year by reducing pollution in line with WHO guidelines due to a reduction in workers suffering from conditions such as COPD (lung disease)
  • The £1.6bn UK economic benefit is on top of potential savings for the NHS and social care of treating health conditions




This major new study – ‘Breathing Life into the UK Economy’ – produced by CBI Economics, the CBI’s economic analysis arm, on behalf of the Clean Air Fund – shows the vital importance of securing green and healthy growth.

  • £25 million economic impact
    Birmingham’s economy could benefit by £25 million annually
    by reducing premature deaths, sickness absence and lower productivity at work if the UK met the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air pollution, which are stricter than the current UK legal limits. 
  • Reducing air pollution to WHO levels could prevent 17,000 premature deaths of people of working age every year across the UK, who are dying nearly 12 (11.8) years earlier than expected, on average. 
  • For businesses in Birmingham, a loss of 71,000 working days could be prevented every year by meeting the WHO’s guidelines, with workers currently becoming ill, or having to take time off to care for sick children as a result of air pollution. 
  • The report is believed to be the first analysis of the economic benefits of reducing pollution levels such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) to what are considered ‘safe levels’. The WHO guidelines for PM2.5 (a form of microscopic pollution) are more than twice as stringent as UK legal levels (10 µg/m³ annual mean vs 25 µg/m³ annual mean).  The report finds that lowering air pollution levels to WHO guidelines could reduce premature deaths and make those skills available to the economy. In addition, workers are less likely to suffer sickness from poor air quality, which would increase their available hours for work.
  • The £1.6bn annual benefit to the UK economy would be on top of savings to NHS and social care budgets from treating fewer patients with health conditions associated with pollution. Air pollution can trigger cardiac arrests, strokes, severe asthma attacks and is associated with diseases such as lung cancer and COPD, with thousands of deaths and hospitalisations every year. 
  • The analysis does not include potential wider benefits to the UK economy of meeting WHO air quality guidelines including preventing early retirement, the benefit to the voluntary sectors or impacts on consumer behaviour, meaning this analysis is likely to be conservative.

£14m benefit to Birmingham workers
As well as the health benefits, the CBI Economics analysis estimates that workers in Birmingham could increase their earnings by a total of £14 million each year (£900m nationally).  For instance, an employee that lives and works for a longer number of years following an improvement in air quality, will earn wages for the additional time they spend in work.


The Clean Air Fund is urging the Government to include a legally binding commitment to meet WHO air pollution standards by 2030 in the Environment Bill, which is due to be debated in Parliament in the autumn. This echoes calls by 16 other campaigning groups part of the Healthy Air Campaign. Currently, the bill mentions ‘a target’ for particulate matter (PM2.5), a particularly deadly form of pollution, but does not specify what that target will be, or when it will be met. Other pollutants, such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) are not mentioned in the Environment Bill and the target for PM2.5 will only be presented to parliament in October 2022.

Some local authorities have announced the introduction of Clean Air Zones with the aim of improving air quality locally. Clean Air Zones were due to be launched in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds in 2020 but have since been postponed until at least 2021, possibly indefinitely, while Greater Manchester’s plans have been delayed until 2022.

Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund, said:

“We know clean air makes us healthier, but our research shows it can make us all wealthier too. If businesses and government work together to ensure clean air for all, we can protect our health and re-energise the economy at this critical time. Ministers must commit to binding targets to cut air pollution in line with WHO guidelines by 2030.”

Richard Butler, CBI West Midlands Director said:

“Not only is there a clear moral responsibility to address the climate emergency, there’s also a striking economic rationale. That’s why the CBI has been absolutely clear that a focus on green recovery should be central to our COVID-19 response.

“From mass energy efficiency programmes to building new sustainable transport infrastructure, the green economy offers incredible opportunities for the UK. Improving air quality should be a key part of this programme, with government and local authorities working together to deliver that goal.

“With air pollution hitting the balance sheets of businesses across the country, and cutting the earnings of their employees, cleaning up our air would help us to lead healthier and more productive lives, while a delivering a green jobs boost for the economy.”

City spotlight: Birmingham
Improving air quality in Birmingham is estimated to provide a £25 million benefit to the local economy every year. While this is similar in magnitude to Manchester, the factors driving this are slightly different. Birmingham is further away from reaching the WHO’s guidelines for PM2.5 than Manchester, but has a smaller proportion of the population in work (43% compared to 47% in Manchester). These factors offset one another so that the economic benefit to the two cities is similar.

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