25 June 2020

Continuing dangers of air pollution highlighted for pupils by environmental writer

The unrelenting and under-reported dangers of air pollution, as well as the failures of corporations and governments, were all on the agenda as a leading environmental journalist spoke to John Lyon pupils.

London-based American writer Beth Gardiner was joined at the John Lyon Excellence Programme online session by Year 9 and 10 pupils — most watching from home with others in the New Memorial Hall — as she talked about researching her book, Choked, described as “the landmark book on one of the world’s most urgent health threats”.

Ms Gardiner spoke about her 20 year path to becoming a leading global reporter on air pollution, having moved to London from New York and immediately noticing the bad smell and taste of the air. It was ten years later, when looking into how air quality could affect athletes in the build-up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games that she found evidence that left her shocked.

She told pupils: “My jaw dropped after just five minutes of reading. There is a huge amount of scientific evidence which says that air pollution affects our health in such a powerful way. I was shocked about how big that impact is. Estimates of early deaths caused by air pollution are seven million a year globally, around 50,000 in the UK and 9,000 in London. These are huge numbers.”

Beth Gardiner speak to John Lyon pupils about air pollution

Beth Gardiner speaks to John Lyon pupils about air pollution

Ms Gardiner also described the variety of  ways in which air pollution can affect our bodies, notably breathing problems but also connections to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia and cancers.

This early research would lead to the publication in 2019 of Choked, after a global journey which took her to India “air pollution’s ground zero”, the coal heartlands of Poland and the political halls of power in America.

In her research she found that the USA was in fact an air pollution success story over the past 50 years, whilst UK and European governments had done a particularity poor job protecting us by failing to properly regulate large corporations who regularly broke the rules.

Positively, Ms Gardiner spoke of the better technologies we now have to reduce air pollution and save lives; that in the past ten years renewable energy had for the first time dropped in cost below coal.

Some Year 10 pupils watched the air pollution talk in the New Memorial Hall

Some Year 10 pupils watched the air pollution talk in the New Memorial Hall

The end of the session saw questions from pupils. Ashil asked how it was possible to determine blame for climate change how the USA could be showing progress having left the Paris Agreement. Ms Gardiner said that blame was difficult. She compared putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to filling a bath tub. For the past 200 years the now developed western nations had filled the tub to the brink, with the less developed countries now the ones continuing to top it up. She described President Trump’s withdrawal form the Paris Agreement as a huge step backwards, and that there was a risk other countries may also stop pursuing the internationally agreed targets.

Taranvir and Toby asked how long it would be until we can rely on sustainable energy and if new innovations can give hope. The answer was that this depends on our motivation and how much governments want to incentivise corporate and consumer behaviours, as renewable technology is now readily available for us to use.

Lucas asked if there were a point of no return for air pollution. The answer was no; that every small step taken could and would save lives.

Sarim asked if the current Mayor of London was doing a good job and Miraaj asked about next steps. The response was that Sadiq Khan was doing a lot with the powers he has but this is nowhere near the influence of a national leader such as the Prime Minister. Ms Gardiner said she would like to see all national leaders step up to bring us cleaner energy and a better future.

Beth Gardiner's air pollution book, Choked

Beth Gardiner’s air pollution book, Choked

John Lyon’s Excellence Programme provides an opportunity for all pupils, no matter their academic ability or age, to maximise their potential to learn and to discover their passion.

The Excellence Programme’s activities vary every term and include visits to cultural events, lectures from leading academics, external national competitions, in-house workshops and discussion groups, delivering Academic Society lectures, and using the School’s 1876 Reading Room to demonstrate a commitment to independent thinking and research. Reading is at the heart of our programme, with pupils encouraged to reflect on their reading in a journal.

Any pupil wanting further information about the Excellence Programme or to find out about joining the Excellence Committee, which helps organise events should contact [email protected]