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The government’s new Clean Air Strategy – what’s wrong with it?

Posted by Rosie Rogers - 15th January 2019

Amid our growing air pollution crisis the Government have today announced their grand plan to tackle air pollution. In it are welcome recognition of the scale of the problem and levels of ambition. However there are clear gaps in their plan that make this yet another failed opportunity.

We all know the facts – air pollution is a scourge which cuts short an estimated 40,000 lives across our country every year. It costs the UK an annual £20 billion and disportionately impacts the most vulnerable in our society – the young, the sick and the elderly. This is a crisis we urgently need to get a handle on.

So the fact this plan has good ambition on some of the causes of air pollution is worth welcoming. The Government’s goal to work towards World Health Organisation (WHO) standards is important, as is their target to halve the population exposed to particulate matter (PM) exceeding these WHO guidelines. Unfortunately, beyond this, the ambition isn’t married with the tangible measures and specifics we need to tackle this crisis. For example the plan commits to “introduce new legislation to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels” yet it gives no specifics on how the Government will do this or how they will incentivise and support the public to transition away from polluting fuels.

Crucially the strategy has a key omission – road transport. We know petrol and diesel vehicles, through their Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions, are a major cause of the problem. This is how most people in urban environments are being exposed to dangerous pollution, whether through driving, using public transport, walking, cycling, or living or working nearby. Yet this strategy eschews NOx, focusing instead on other pollutants like PM – despite the fact that the High Court has ordered the Government to solve the crisis within the quickest possible timescale. This demonstrates a clear lack of joined up thinking within the Government across departments. On the one hand we have the Department of Environment and Health saying today they are committed to tackling air pollution. On the other we have the Department for Transport saying little on the issue whilst pursuing measures, including road building and the third runway at Heathrow, which will make air pollution worse.

The solutions are out there, we just need the government to grasp them. The government should aim to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030. Whilst they currently have a 2040 date in mind this lacks the necessary ambition to truly tackle our air pollution crisis. Moving to a 2030 target would bring us in line with nations such as Ireland, Israel and India and would have the twin benefit of tackling our toxic air whilst also cutting our carbon emissions.

Alongside this we need to see the introduction of clean air zones across our country, which would restrict the most polluting cars and vans from urban centres. London is leading the way on these but air pollution is a national issue. With 40 cities and towns across the UK already breaching legal air pollution limits we need to see the Government push clean air zones up and down the nation. The government’s own analysis says this is the most cost-effective way to tackle the problem. This would require the Government to show more leadership in supporting councils to deal with air pollution. Local authorities don’t necessarily need new powers to tackle air pollution; rather government needs to instruct key councils to establish clean air zones, rather than making this an optional measure, and provide the right funding to match. In addition, local authorities should be given more support to invest in local transport, and must roll out diesel scrappage schemes to help drivers of more polluting vehicles, especially at the poorer end of society, to switch to cleaner options.

Finally, an effective clean air strategy would tackle one of the key actors in this issue – car companies. By making polluting car companies like VW pay into clean air funds and a polluter pay scheme, we can start to clean up our air and compensate those whose lives have been damaged by their polluting vehicles.

Again it’s worth reiterating that the government are saying all the right things. They’re recognising the huge human and financial cost of air pollution. They’re showing laudable ambition to tackle it. But the Government has already been taken to court three times under EU laws over roadside air pollution and so without legislation and actual targets or specifics, these ambitions are only words. Until there are real, tangible plans to transform our  transport system and ensure a joined up approach across Government we will remain locked into this crisis. That will have an all too deadly cost for far too many in our society.

Article Tagged as: Air pollution, Featured

About Rosie Rogers

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I'm Rosie and I am a Senior Political Advisor at Greenpeace UK.