Over the past number of decades environmental issues such as air pollution have gained significant attention by leaders and activists. However, within this global trend of increased air pollution in our European cities comes another issue: the impact this pollution is disproportionately having on the most disadvantaged members of society. This is a trend that has been seen repeatedly in European cities and environmental inequalities in Ireland are no different.
Air pollution is the cause of 1,180 premature deaths in Ireland per year.
The World Health Organisation release statistics on air pollution each year. Their most recent statistics estimate that annually in Europe more than 400,000 premature deaths are attributable to poor air quality. They also estimate that in Ireland, the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution is around 1,180 people per year.
Poor air quality and regular exposure to pollution can have a severe impact on people’s health. A number of long-term health problems such as lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases can all be attributed to exposure to heavily polluted air.
“Environmental issues are not a class free zone.”
In Ireland, the highest levels of pollution have been recorded in inner city Dublin, Cork and Belfast. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a number of breaches of legal air quality. These were mainly found in working class areas of Dublin.
Similarly, in 2019 the department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the North of Ireland found high levels of pollution that breached legal limits in many areas of Belfast. The highest levels were recorded on the Falls Road area of west Belfast. This is also a predominantly working class area of the city.
Similar trends showing the same results have been seen across nearly every European city. John Barry is the Professor of green political economy and director of the Centre for Sustainability Equality and Climate Action at Queen’s University. He recognises this trend and agrees that “environmental issues are not a class free zone”. John also believes that you cannot have a “class blind analysis”of an issue like this. He also agrees that “most pollution is absolutely in the most working class areas of the city”.
Why are Environmental inequalities in Ireland happening?
There are many reasons why these environmental inequalities in Ireland are taking place. Firstly, Ireland is a country that relies heavily on carbon-based energy systems. Traffic emissions and poorly insulated housing are some of the highest contributors to air pollution. Social housing, in both Northern and Southern Ireland is mainly situated in cities. These homes are usually near main roads and motorways with consistent traffic build up. John Barry draws attention to how social housing in Ireland is also some of the “worst insulated housing in Europe” and states that these houses are often known to “heat the street”.
Another aspect of this inequality is that middle class people can usually afford to live in less polluted areas. They are also more likely to be car owners and drive into cities to work creating high emissions. Although working class people are less responsible for creating harmful emissions, they are the most heavily impacted. This increases the inequality even further.
Another factor that John Barry draws attention to is the “lack of power working class people feel they have in terms of lobbying the government”. This means that these problems often get overlooked.
What are some solutions?
There are a number of different solutions suggested to control levels of air pollution. These include free public transport, introduction of more renewable energy resources, and better insulation for homes.
However, it is clear that as long as pollution continues to be a global problem it will be the most disadvantaged members of society who will suffer most.
(WHO) Air pollution statistics can be found here