In June last year, the government of Wales said it was halting all new road-building projects. The plan was a bold move in the effort to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The more roads there are, the more cars there will be to fill them, experts said – while scientists, community groups and doctors’ unions pleaded for action on air pollution. An external panel will review all proposed future schemes.
It’s no coincidence that Wales was the first UK country to appoint a Future Generations Commissioner. The commissioner, Sophie Howe – tasked with protecting the long-term interests of Welsh society – urged Welsh Parliament members to freeze road building in 2020. When they did, she hailed the “very brave” move and said that while the needs of rural residents with fewer transport links mustn’t be forgotten, radical changes would be needed in order to protect the future of the planet.
Wales’s focus on putting long-term thinking at the forefront of political decision-making chimes with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, created by Big Issue founder Lord John Bird, which is currently making its way through Parliament.
Like the climate crisis, the impacts of new roads and traffic congestion hit poorer communities the hardest while substandard public transport perpetuates the UK’s deep inequality. Air pollution levels breach safe legal limits at more than 97 per cent of homes across the country, with those in poverty and people from ethnic minority backgrounds being worst affected. It’s a growing problem, driven largely by increasing levels of private car ownership, while the World Health Organisation links air pollution to dementia, type 2 diabetes, strokes, lung cancers and respiratory illnesses.
Around 40,000 deaths each year can be attributed to toxic air in the UK alone, according to research by the Royal College of Physicians. In 2020, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. She lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, one of the busiest roads in London, and the concentration of air toxins exacerbated her asthma to the point of a fatal attack, the coroner ruled.
The health of the planet also relies on how successfully each UK nation reduces its reliance on private cars. Taking decisive action on the climate crisis would require “changes in all parts of our lives”, Lee Waters, deputy minister for climate change, told the Senedd when he announced the freeze on road building: “In the next 10 years, we are going to need to more than double all the cuts we’ve managed over the last 30.”