The relationship between air quality and health is extremely complex and it is generally difficult to say with certainty what impact air pollution has on specific individuals. However, we know that the very young, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of poor air quality.
The Scottish Government recognises that the quality of the air that we breathe is fundamental to our health and, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, Scotland enjoys a high level of air quality. At the same time, evidence continues to grow on the impacts of poor air quality, expanding our understanding of how air pollution is harmful to public health and the environment.
In July this year, we published a new air quality strategy to set out the Scottish Government’s policy framework for the next five years and a series of actions to deliver further air quality improvement.
Research from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that 81 per cent of births in Scotland this past year were in local authorities with unsafe levels of air pollution, exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for fine particulate matter. Meanwhile, six roads—including the A737, which runs through my constituency—still exceed the legal limit for nitrogen oxide.
When will low-emission zones be extended from the four main cities, which will include Edinburgh from next year, to other cities and large towns, and what health benefits will that extension bring?
Beyond the four cities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, local authorities with air quality management areas require to undertake a national low-emissions framework assessment to determine the suitability of a LEZ for the air quality issues that they might experience. To date, no other Scottish local authority has determined that an LEZ is appropriate. However, all local authorities with AQMAs must produce an action plan that details how air quality will be improved.
The member has asked an excellent question. Human health improvements are not related solely to direct reductions in air pollution. The policies that can improve air quality can potentially have multiple co-benefits for population health, but they can also address inequality and can mitigate, and provide adaptations for, climate change.
A prime example is the policy to promote active travel, about which I know that the member is passionate. Walking, wheeling and cycling can increase physical activity and significantly reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and mortality, and they have been shown to reduce all causes of mortality, even after controlling for other physical activity.
Active travel is a particular priority for the Government, and our work across portfolios to deliver on that particular benefit for the citizens of Scotland is clear.