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BREATHING OPPORTUNITIES

SIMON BIRKETT
Founder and Director, Clean Air in London
Participant at the LONDON OPPORTUNITY PANEL

An engineer turned banker, Simon stumbled into activism through a lengthy battle with his local council against “rat-running” in his London neighborhood. As he looked into traffic congestion in his city, he soon found out about the shocking state of the air he and his fellow Londoners were breathing.

He decided to make air quality a problem that decision makers could not ignore. “I thought clean air was a perfect issue to campaign on, because it is an issue that people can understand, but there are also powerful laws in place to actually force the politicians to get on with fixing the problem.” Even more importantly, “if we do achieve clean air, we will achieve many other objectives at the same time, such as less noise, better quality of life, and better public health and so on.”

DISRUPTIVE DETERMINATION
Simon has shown great determination to turn a societal risk into an opportunity. For Simon, achieving clean air is not just about the absence of pollution. It is about the creation of better societies and better lives.

“The opportunity is to tackle air pollution through a mixture of political will, lifestyle changes and technology to reduce local air pollution. And if we succeed, we can show the rest of the world how to achieve the wider sustainability objectives.” He is now advicing the UN environment programme.

Simon will not be stopped by a lack of political will. On the contrary he has shown the determination to pursue all opportunities for increasing pressure on politicians. Through a mixture of media attention, avid social media use, juridical investigation, constant contact with politicians, and above all vigilance, Simon has pushed clean air to the top of the agenda in London and beyond. He calls his own approach “disruptive in a constructive sense.” To be successful, impatience and tenacity are key. “The way to get big changes in any walk of life is to pursue transformation in a way that takes the wall down overnight,” he asserts.

TAKING DOWN WALLS
Some of the walls Simon has worked on taking down include forcing the successive governments to release official figures for the number of people affected by air pollution, prompting parliamentary inquiries, and successfully encouraging the European Commission take legal action against the UK on the issue of air pollution. This year was the first time ever that the World Health Assembly held a debate about local air pollution, three years after the World Health Organization declared diesel as carcinogenic to humans. Simon also praises the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which have placed local air pollution at the forefront of the political agenda, and the Paris agreement at COP21, which acknowledged the “right to human health.” This is recognition from the highest levels of world government that this is a big issue that must be addressed.

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