New air pol­lu­tion plans im­prove on EU rules, gov­ern­ment claims

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Fiona Har­vey En­vi­ron­ment cor­re­spon­dent

The gov­ern­ment has set out new plans on air pol­lu­tion that min­is­ters say go be­yond ex­ist­ing EU rules, with a pledge to im­prove air qual­ity na­tion­wide to the stan­dards the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WH0) rec­om­mends.

Farm­ers will be sub­ject to such air qual­ity reg­u­la­tions for the first time to cut their grow­ing con­tri­bu­tion to pol­lu­tion, un­der the gov­ern­ment plans set out on Mon­day, while diesel ve­hi­cle driv­ers and own­ers of wood-burn­ing stoves will also face re­stric­tions.

Un­der the gov­ern­ment’s plans, only the clean­est forms of biomass stoves will be avail­able from 2022, and farm­ers will be re­quired to re­duce their fer­tiliser use and the emis­sions of am­mo­nia – a po­tent air-pol­lut­ing gas, which can com­bine with other forms of air pol­lu­tion to lodge small par­ti­cles deep in the lungs – from fer­tiliser and live­stock. Sales of bi­tu­mi­nous or tra­di­tional house coal may also be phased out.

Min­is­ters said the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in ar­eas with pol­lu­tion above WHO guide­lines would be halved by 2025. The gov­ern­ment said air pol­lu­tion was one of the big­gest threats to pub­lic health in the UK, be­hind only can­cer, obe­sity and heart dis­ease.

But crit­ics said the plans were short on de­tail, with no dead­lines for meet­ing the WHO lim­its, and fell short of the sta­tus of EU tar­gets, which are en­shrined in law. Le­gal chal­lenges to the gov­ern­ment over its fail­ure to ad­here to EU rules, which re­sulted in a supreme court rul­ing against min­is­ters last year, have played a key part in bring­ing air pol­lu­tion to gov­ern­ment at­ten­tion in the last five years.

The so­cial and eco­nomic costs of air pol­lu­tion in the UK were likely to be greater than pre­vi­ously thought, the gov­ern­ment said, cit­ing cal­cu­la­tions that the cost of air pol­lu­tion could reach £18.6bn be­tween now and 2035. Min­is­ters said the new plans should re­duce the cost to the NHS and so­ci­ety by £1.7bn a year by 2020, ris­ing to £5.3bn a year from 2030.

Fresh science on the dan­gers of air pol­lu­tion has been pil­ing up. On Satur­day, the Guardian re­ported new ev­i­dence that air pol­lu­tion can in­crease the risk of mis­car­riage in early preg­nancy, com­pared by one doc­tor to the ef­fects of smok­ing. In re­cent years, stud­ies have linked air pol­lu­tion to de­men­tia, heart con­di­tions and birth de­fects. About 7 mil­lion peo­ple a year are es­ti­mated to die from air pol­lu­tion around the world.

Michael Gove, the en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary, said the UK needed a new strat­egy to im­prove air qual­ity. “The ev­i­dence is clear: while air qual­ity has im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent years, air pol­lu­tion con­tin­ues to shorten lives, harm our chil­dren and re­duce qual­ity of life,” he said.

Af­ter Brexit, the UK will no longer be sub­ject to EU leg­is­la­tion on air pol­lu­tion, which the gov­ern­ment has flouted re­peat­edly in the last decade, and which has formed the ba­sis of chal­lenges by cam­paign­ers that have forced min­is­ters to change course and put in place mea­sures to re­duce the prob­lem.

The gov­ern­ment has not made it clear whether there will be new leg­is­la­tion that would al­low min­is­ters to be held to ac­count in fu­ture over the com­mit­ments they are mak­ing.

Si­mon Al­cock, the head of pub­lic af­fairs at Clien­tEarth, a le­gal ad­vo­cacy group that has taken the gov­ern­ment to court on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, called for a clearer frame­work: “Ac­tion to pro­tect peo­ple’s health must be a re­quire­ment, not a nice-to-have.”

Gove said traf­fic pol­lu­tion – tar­geted by cam­paign­ers as the key source of small par­ti­cles that lodge deep in the lungs, and ni­tro­gen ox­ides and other gases that ir­ri­tate the breath­ing pas­sages – was only part of the prob­lem. “While air pol­lu­tion may con­jure images of traf­fic jams and ex­haust fumes, trans­port is only one part of the story, and the new strat­egy sets out the im­por­tant role all of us can play in re­duc­ing emis­sions and clean­ing up our air to pro­tect our health,” said Gove.

There were no new ma­jor mea­sures in the strat­egy to com­bat pol­lu­tion from ve­hi­cles, but a re­state­ment of last year’s pledge to end the sale of new con­ven­tional petrol and diesel ve­hi­cles by 2040, which cam­paign­ers said was too far away.

Morten Thay­sen, a clean air cam­paigner for Green­peace UK, said: “The gov­ern­ment is say­ing all the right things about the huge cost in hu­man lives and money, but is propos­ing noth­ing new to tackle pol­lu­tion from road trans­port. A 2040 phase-out date for diesel and petrol is ef­fec­tively say­ing that yes, your grand­chil­dren de­serve clean air, but your chil­dren will have to go on breath­ing toxic fumes so as not to dis­rupt the car in­dus­try’s sales fore­casts.”

A spokes­woman for the Depart­ment for En­vi­ron­ment, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs told the Guardian: “We will not weaken our en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion when we leave the EU, but will main­tain and even en­hance our al­ready high en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards. Our clean air strat­egy shows how we will go fur­ther and faster than the EU in re­duc­ing hu­man ex­po­sure to par­tic­u­late-mat­ter pol­lu­tion. This will be un­der­pinned by new Eng­land-wide pow­ers to con­trol ma­jor sources of air pol­lu­tion, plus new lo­cal pow­ers to take ac­tion in ar­eas with an air pol­lu­tion prob­lem.”

House­hold wood-burn­ing stoves will come un­der new re­stric­tions. Pho­to­graph: GlobalWarm­ing Images/Alamy

The gov­ern­ment is aim­ing to phase out salesof new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Pho­to­graph: Christo­pher Thomond for the Guardian

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