The numbers are chilling. Globally, air pollution cuts short seven million lives every year: about 40,000 in Britain, some 100,000 in the United States, and upward of a million each for China and India.
Europe’s air is significantly worse than America’s. That is in part because of Europe’s embrace of diesel cars, whose fumes are more noxious than gasoline’s. But the bigger reason is the failure of its governments to effectively enforce pollution rules. Instead, they have looked the other way while manufacturers sell diesels that emit six or more times legal nitrogen oxide limits.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has been a more powerful policeman, turning rules on paper into air quality improvements that have saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars since 1970. Of course, the E.P.A. and the regulations it enforces are under assault by the Trump administration and so decades of progress are at risk, and dirtier air and more ill health are the predictable consequences.
Few understand that better than Ms. Adoo-Kissi-Debra, who was a secondary school teacher before Ella died. For a long time, she says, “I felt her death like a physical pain.” Now, she wonders how many other children London’s dirty air has killed since her own loss.
It does not have to be this way. Effective regulation can significantly reduce pollution levels. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is taking some meaningful steps, including charging the oldest and most polluting cars to enter the city’s center and retrofitting buses with filters.
But there’s only so much a mayor can do. The problem is much bigger than one city. Real progress requires action at the national, and European levels, to get the dirtiest diesels off roads, force carmakers to comply with the law and crack down on less obvious pollution sources, like household wood-burning. Ultimately, the real answer, in Europe and beyond, is eliminating fossil fuels altogether — and reducing the number of cars on our roads by providing better alternatives, such as strengthened public transportation and denser development that makes biking and walking easier.
And the science is clear. Cleaner air brings better health, and fewer deaths.
Only governmental power can fix this. So now Ms. Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is running for London Assembly. And she hopes official acknowledgment, on a death certificate, of what pollution did to her daughter will make the need for action harder to ignore. “It’s not going to bring her back, obviously. But at least the real reason why she’s not here will be on there.”
Beth Gardiner (@gardiner_beth) is a London-based journalist and author of the forthcoming “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.”