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Book review: Breathe, by Sadiq Khan

Book review: Breathe, by Sadiq Khan

By Jeremy Williams

Sadiq Khan has been mayor of London since 2016, and in this book, he outlines his action on climate in the city. It’s a mix of the personal, the political, and the possible – cities can lead on climate change in ways nations can’t, and mayors can be a powerful influence.

Breathe begins with Khan’s own experience of being diagnosed with asthma as an adult. It was a direct result of exposure to air pollution while training for the London marathon, and it alerted him to the reality of environmental harm in a new way. His story is shared in the first chapter alongside that of Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died of severe asthma aged nine and is the first person in the country to have air pollution as an official cause of death. Khan comes back to Ella, and her campaigning mum Rosamund, at various points in the book.

When Khan ran for mayor of London a couple of years later, he made green issues an important part of his manifesto, emphasising how there would be local benefits to climate action. “The solutions to air pollution and climate change are often the same. Tackle one, and you tackle both.” This is a recurring refrain in my work in Luton, which has the worst air pollution in the country for a town of its size.

Having won the election, the book then describes various initiatives and how they got started, how they were opposed and how the opposition was overcome. Each chapter is named for an obstacle – fatalism, apathy, cynicism, etc – and uses a London-based example to explore broader points. The chapter titled ‘hostility’ starts with angry residents grumbling about low-traffic neighbourhoods, and encourages politicians to hold their nerve in the face of a vocal minority with the press on their side. Do the polling, understand the support that’s there, and push through. ‘Cost’ begins with a van driver who takes Khan to task over having to replace his diesel van, and then investigates Green New Deal approaches that include social justice and don’t place the financial burden on the poorest.

One of the nice things about Breathe is that it’s more entertaining than I expected. It’s full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes from a life in politics, written with a self-deprecating sense of humour.

Another useful aspect of the book is that it’s a success story – or at least the beginning of one. That’s not exactly common in climate change books, which can be heavy on the gloom. This is written with an optimism grounded in results delivered: air pollution has been significantly reduced. London has ambitious climate plans, and some bold policies that are ground-breaking, such as the world’s first ‘ultra-low emissions zone’. The city came out the other side of Covid with a new commitment to walking and cycling, school streets and low-traffic neighbourhoods. These things were voted for by Londoners in Khan’s re-election in 2021, proving that “climate change isn’t political kryptonite.”

Khan isn’t greedy for the credit for this, and he mentions the people he has learned from, many of them fellow mayors. Anne Hidalgo of Paris, Michael Bloomberg in New York, Claudia Lopez in Bogota. Economist Mariana Mazzucato features, and her influence is all over the Labour Party at the moment.

On that note, Breathe is inevitably somewhat partisan. Or more specifically, it’s the pro-Johnson wing of the Conservatives who won’t like the book. Khan took over from Boris Johnson as mayor, and he doesn’t come out of it well. Perhaps the worst finding is that City Hall commissioned a report into London’s air quality and found that hundreds of schools had air pollution levels above the legal limit – especially in the poorest parts of the city. Rather than tackle this health risk and environmental injustice, they never published the data.

Khan is passionate about air quality, and the book really brought home to me the outrage of it. When we breathe polluted air, “we are being harmed by the very thing that keeps us alive: breathing.” Nothing is more important than breathing, so air pollution is a cruel betrayal. I know this academically, but Khan’s book is a really clear articulation of how and why climate action and clean air go together.

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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