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  • Writer's pictureBarrie Wilkinson

Something in the air

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

I grew up in a town called Speke in Liverpool, where Paul McCartney lived as a child and which is now the home to John Lennon airport. Before the 1930s, Speke was mainly farmland until it was covered in concrete and redbrick terraced houses creating the largest council estate in the UK. The estate was put there to supply low-cost housing for factory workers. On one side of the estate we had the car factories, a large pharmaceutical plant and the Metal Box factory, where my father worked. Just across the Runcorn bridge was one of Europe's largest chemical plants and the 800MW Rocksavage gas-fired power plant.

I recall you could detect the bad odors in my home town coming in waves from the factories and chemical plants . To make matters worse, my parents grew up with my grandparents using coal to heat their homes so the air inside the houses was likely even dirtier than the outside air. I hadn't really thought about it until I started writing this post but the air quality in our local environment must have been pretty awful and no doubt included many of the gases that can cause lung conditions, cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

Emissions have a tendency to follow manufacturing jobs

My grandfather told my mother when she was younger that "one day all that will be left in Liverpool is services jobs". He wasn't far wrong. During the 1980s in my teenage years they started shutting down many of the factories and moving a lot of the manufacturing jobs offshore to countries with lower-cost labor. But it wasn't just the jobs that were moved abroad, it was the emissions too. The air quality conditions I described above during the UK industrial years can be found today in parts of Asia. Coal-powered energy plants and factories combined with people burning solid fuels in their homes means that many cities currently have air pollution which is considered unhealthy-to-hazardous on a permanent basis.

These emissions are real and so are the death statistics that accompany them with something like 5 million people dying from air pollution globally each year (comparable to the cumulative global deaths from COVID-19). You can also see below that air pollution levels across the globe greatly exceed the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Note - most of my graphics will be interactive. Try choosing a different country from the drop-down list.

Air pollution is the 5th largest cause of death globally

source: WHO and

A call to action

If you managed to read all the preceding paragraphs, I suspect you will have found it relatively easy to connect emotionally with the stories of the factory workers from the past. We all know people from this generation. Few of them would change much about their past. If they could go back in time they would still choose to throw an extra lump of coal on the fire and live in a smokey house rather than watch their children shiver from cold. But how easy was it for you to connect with the death statistics of people living in far off lands? And what about the future? How easy is it for us to connect emotionally with the generations of people that haven't been born yet and the suffering they could be exposed to due to climate change?

This is the first post in an upcoming series of posts on the challenges and opportunities that the world faces in managing the transition to net-zero emissions. The reason I started my first post with air pollution rather than climate change is that it is easier to grab hold of. We can smell dirty air in our noses and sense it in our lungs and so it is not difficult to imagine that it could cause us damage. When we sense real danger as we did during the pandemic, the human race has shown the ability to mobilize quickly and to move metaphorical mountains. We now need to tune our senses to the immediate and long-term threats posed by climate change.

A reason to be optimistic

I don't know about you, but I really sense a growing willingness to take on this greatest challenge of our generation. Everywhere I look I see citizens, scientists, politicians and business leaders stepping forward to offer their help. I see friends making difficult carbon-conscious choices in their lives which sometimes cause them inconvenience and/or extra cost. Perhaps most importantly, the enthusiasm of passionate individuals is proving to be infectious.

I also realize that this is a difficult topic with many different philosophical camps. As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to work with anyone who is motivated to make a difference. In my experience, the toughest problems get solved when people collaborate across boundaries they haven't crossed before so I'm planning to do my utmost to reach out to as many people as possible. You never know who might be holding one of the next pieces of the puzzle.

What's in the Barrie's Blog pipeline?

They say you shouldn't launch a blog unless you have already written the first 10 posts so I have done just that. You can see a screenshot of some of the posts in my drafts folder below to give you a flavor of what's coming next.

I'm hoping this series will fill a gap for readers in a few senses. Firstly, for my day job I've been working with the Oliver Wyman team to compile a rich dataset covering the emissions and economics of all the major industry sectors and supply chains which I will be drawing upon in my analysis. I'm also privileged to have access to an incredible group of experts within Oliver Wyman covering all the relevant industries such as Power, Oil & Gas, Aviation, Automotive, Finance, etc who will feature in video interviews along with external industry practitioners and other interesting personalities. Why waste time speculating about green steel or electric-powered aircraft, when you can set up a Zoom call and speak to the people who are involved in making these things!?

I'm really excited to launch this initiative and hope you all find something interesting in it. Everybody is welcome so please come and join the debate!


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Nov 10, 2021

Beautifully written Barrie, loved the personal story. I am looking forward to your future blogs on the subject.


Nov 06, 2021

Well written Barrie!


Nov 06, 2021

Brilliant Barrie, we are all better for you sharing this more widely


Nov 05, 2021

Thanks for sharing Barrie. Your insights are invaluable and your delivery a joy.

-Jason P


Nov 05, 2021

Thank you Barrie for this insightful perspective that helped to bring the problem closer to home.

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