Air Quality and Climate Change 

Retailers know that we all have a key part to play in tackling climate change. This view is supported by our UK customers who look to businesses to do the right thing and reduce their carbon emissions. This is why leading retailers are coming together through the BRC to develop a ground-breaking decarbonisation plan that will guide the industry on the steps necessary to accelerate progress towards a Net Zero UK, ahead of the Government’s 2050 target. 

We recognise that as retailers we are uniquely placed to support the UK’s journey to a low carbon future including driving forward decarbonisation in our shops, distribution centres and logistics operations, including deliveries by vehicles. Retailers are also committing to driving down emissions across supply chains and helping to guide our customers towards dramatically lowering their own carbon footprint, while continuing to deliver an outstanding retail experience. 

By working collectively with our employees, customers, suppliers, Government and other stakeholders, we are confident we can overcome the shared barriers we face to tackling climate change and help the UK lead the way towards a better society and a better planet. The BRC Climate Statement is the first step in that process. 

Air Quality & COVID-19

One of the consequences of the decisions that the government has made to protect the population from COVID-19 is noticeably cleaner air in our towns and cities. A reduction in traffic on our roads has highlighted the impacts that polluting vehicles and congestion normally have on people’s health and wellbeing. Polls show that people do not want to return to dirty air. Meanwhile the availability and viability of clean transport alternatives is increasing and the political debate is changing. As the focus shifts from business continuity to economic recovery there are increasing calls from businesses and NGOs alike for funding to be linked to green objectives. 

In advance of a virtual event next month when we will look at the accelerating shift to zero emissions transport and the implications for retailers, Charlotte West and Dominic Phinn from environment charities Global Action Plan and ClientEarth share some thoughts on the subject.


Strategic Account Director, Global Action Plan


Why air quality matters right now

Clean Air is much more than better air quality, it also means health, wellbeing, social justice and more liveable communities. 

Action on air quality is a moral imperative for business; racial injustice campaigners point out higher toxic pollution in areas with large BAME populations, and respiratory experts are concerned about poor air quality causing or worsening health conditions like asthma and COPD, making people more vulnerable to coronavirus complications. 

And behaviours which clean up the air we breathe can help usher in more desirable town centres, healthier citizens and in turn, more vibrant local economies. 

Picture people walking to their nearest parade of shops to collect an online order, exploring pop up boutiques and local independent stores. Since lockdown began, half of the UK population say they are happy to collect parcels from centralised collection points to help minimise traffic and pollution from door-to-door deliveries[1]. Imagine cargo bikes ferrying items to people’s homes, and electric vans bearing the names of forward-thinking retailers, making people feel good about their neighbourhood and the brands helping cut the pollution. 42% of people in the UK want to see businesses using electric vans to deliver goods.[2]

This vision of a clean air future is fast becoming a real scenario thanks to the increasing availability of cleaner vehicles, micro mobility and ambition from government including the Department for Transport. Action from business is the next step. 

And with 74% of people saying businesses need to do more to cut pollution and traffic as we emerge from lockdown[3], public opinion is at a tipping point. We’ll be sharing more of these insights during the webinar, to equip sustainability professionals with the case for action on clean transport and retail. 

So, what can retailers do?

The collective voice of retailers matters hugely to give the automotive sector the signal that electric vehicles are needed urgently and at scale. We need more retailers to amplify the call. 

Retailers also have an opportunity to create their own bespoke action plan to reduce air pollution across their business’ footprint. The Business Clean Air Taskforce in partnership with Defra, has this month launched a free initiative – Business for Clean Air - designed to help large businesses create ‘Clean Air Action Plans’ to reduce air pollution from the factory to the customer’s home. Retailers are being urged to pledge their commitment to air quality, create their own roadmaps, and bring partners along with them. We’ll be talking more about the campaign and how you can get involved at our virtual event.


Business Engagement Coordinator, ClientEarth


The health impacts of air pollution

The government has long been aware of the impact of poor air quality on our health, and has a legal obligation to act – which it failed for ten years to live up to. The lack of an adequate response has forced ClientEarth to take the government to court three times over the last eight years. This has resulted in 63 local authorities across England and Wales being required to come up with their own proposals to tackle illegal levels of pollution in their areas.

Change is coming

Change has been far too slow until now but there are many reasons today to feel optimistic about clean air. Lockdown has seen an increase in public concern about air pollution. According to Global Action Plan polling, 59% of the public feel that that air quality has been better since lockdown with 72% of people believing clean air is more important. As Charlotte illustrated, this increased public demand to clean up our air is accompanied by an increasing number of new options to make zero emission journeys and deliveries. 

Those joining the event we are hosting next month will hear case studies showing how these solutions are already being effectively employed by a number of UK businesses. At the same time we have seen a change in the political discourse. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has recognised that people will not want to go back to breathing dirty air after lockdown. The same is true in the UK with the Minister for Transport Grant Shapps recently stating: “One of the few positive benefits about the crisis is drastically better air quality and the health benefits that that brings’. A host of environmental and business groups are putting pressure on the government to ‘build back better’.” 

The government has set some long-term targets, for example, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero by 2050 and is consulting on whether it should bring forward the date for the phase out of sales of all new petrol and diesel cars from 2040. However, while the direction of travel is clear, for most of us the immediate road ahead is not. A clear plan is badly needed in order for businesses to invest with confidence in zero emission transport solutions while engaging customers, employees and other stakeholders along the way. 

We also need to see government provide funding to help make zero emission options affordable until they reach cost parity with their polluting counterparts; investment to ensure businesses and individuals have access to adequate charging infrastructure; and measures to ensure that the supply of zero emission vehicles, in particular vans, meets demand. 

The retail sector has a key role to play in cleaning up our air, through shifting their fleets to clean vehicles, providing charging facilities for customers with electric vehicles and by using their influence and profile to shift the public and political debate. I look forward to discussing this crucial topic with retailers next month.

Signup for the Virtual Roundtable

We’re working to align the retail industry and build a common understanding and ambition towards Net Zero, and are delighted to be partnering with DP World - a modern and sustainable logistics operation in the East of London - to bring expertise and focus to this critical issue at our upcoming virtual roundtable.

If you're a BRC Retail Member, you can register here

[1] Opinium polling for GAP of 2,002 UK adults, May 2020

[2] Opinium polling for GAP of 2,002 UK adults, May 2020

[3] Opinium polling for GAP of 2,002 UK adults, May 2020