Will Nicolle: Be ambitious in the fight against air pollution

Will Nicolle is a researcher at Bright Blue and co-author of its latest report, ‘Emission impossible?

Since the first Clean Air Act 1956, introduced by a Conservative Government, the UK has enjoyed considerably cleaner air. But stronger evidence has emerged in recent years about the detrimental impact of air pollution to human health, the economy and the environment. Consequently, there is growing public and political pressure for tougher action to reduce levels of air pollution in the UK.

In Bright Blue’s new report, Emission impossible?, we found that a clear majority (71 per cent) of UK adults reported that they were concerned about the impact of air pollution on the health of themselves and others. And a clear majority (69 per cent) of adults agree that the Government should reduce air pollution below current levels.

Air pollution is damaging for our health in a myriad of ways. The air pollutants Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM) have been linked to higher incidences of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as higher incidences of dementia and depression. There are also costs to the environment – through, for example, nitrogen deposition affecting ecosystem dynamics – and the economy, through high concentrations of pollutants increasing the prevalence of sick days.

The UK currently meets all its legal limits and targets on air pollution, except for annual and hourly legal limits on the concentration of NO2. The UK is split into 43 zones for reporting purposes on the concentrations of different air pollutants. In 2010, 40 of these zones were reported as in breach of our legal limits on the concentration of NO2. Based on the most recent data, the UK still breaches its legal limits for NO2 in 37 of these reporting areas. And the transport sector is the largest source of NO2.

As we leave the EU, the UK Government needs new, ambitious legal limits, legal responsibilities and transport policies on air pollution. This country should aspire to be a global leader on yet another environmental issue, and strive to become the country with the cleanest air in urban areas in the developed world.

First, the Government should commit to adopting the ambitious World Health Organisation’s guideline limits on four air pollutants: PM, NO2, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3). Currently, the UK’s legal limits and targets for different air pollutants are EU-derived. Recently, DEFRA stated they believed the WHO’s recommended PM2.5 limit was “technically feasible”, but further analysis was needed as to its economic and practical feasibility. We recommend the Government adopts all the WHO guideline limits for different air pollutants as soon as possible, but only after a feasibility study.

In the future, the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), or even a new Committee on Clean Air, should have the responsibility to recommend future legal limits and targets for different air pollutants to parliament after conducting appropriate feasibility studies. This will be similar to the role of the independent and influential Committee on Climate Change in advising the UK Government on greenhouse gas emission targets, so that the setting of air pollutant limits and targets will be properly evidenced and scrutinised.

Second, to achieve these stricter limits, those who have the power to reduce air pollution should have clearer legal responsibilities. At the moment, local authorities are obliged to monitor, review and if appropriate take action in relation to the air pollution within their boundaries. But local authorities do not have a clear legal responsibility to reduce air pollution below legal limits. Equally, other public authorities that control some sources of air pollution do not face legal obligations to reduce air pollution levels to below legal limits in areas where they have authority.

We recommend that all local authorities have a legal requirement placed on them to achieve compliance with legal air pollutant limits in their geographic area of responsibility. We also recommend that relevant public bodies should have a new legal duty placed on them to contribute to achieving compliance with legal air pollution limits within their geographic area of responsibility.

Finally, bolder transport policies will be needed if the UK is to meet these new ambitious limits, especially for the air pollutant NO2.

Recently, it was forecast that Electric Vehicles will only be 75 per cent of new vehicle sales by 2040 based on current incentives – falling short of the Government’s target of phasing out fossil fuel car purchases by 2040. The expensive upfront costs of Electric Vehicles are a major barrier, so we recommend therefore that VAT should be scrapped on the purchase of all categories of Electric Vehicles in the UK.

Generally, arguments for the lowering of speed limits to 20mph in urban areas are framed in terms of public safety, but there is now also a solid evidence base to be made for it lowering air pollution from vehicles. We recommend that the default national speed limit on all ‘restricted roads’ in urban areas in England and Wales be lowered from 30mph to 20mph.

In the City of New York in the US, there is a system in place to allow citizens to report commercial trucks and buses that are idling for longer than the legal three minutes – or for longer than one minute if outside schools – through taking photographs and videos and filling out an online form run by the City of New York government. Citizens who report polluters get a 25 per cent share of the income from the fine imposed.

So, alongside new powers to enable local authority traffic officers to instantly apply fines for stationary idling, which the government is considering, we recommend local authorities with a charging Clean Air Zone should be required to introduce such citizen-based reporting of stationary idling. If a fine is imposed, citizens could receive a portion of the fine, with the remainder going to the local authority to be spent on other local air pollution abatement policies. We further recommend the government consult on expanding this citizen-based reporting system from the City of New York to passenger vehicles.

The UK’s departure from the EU means that there is an opportunity to raise air pollution standards in the UK. Post-Brexit Britain should introduce ambitious limits and policies to be a global leader on clean air.

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