Gove sets out plan to tackle air pollution
Restrictions pledged on wood-burning stoves, diesel cars and farms, but critics say the plans don’t go far enough
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 recommends.
Farmers will come under the new regulations for the first time to cut their growing contribution to poor air under the plans set out today, while diesel vehicle drivers and owners of wood-burning stoves will also face restrictions.
Under the government’s proposals, only the cleanest forms of biomass stoves will be available from 2022, and farmers will be required to reduce their fertiliser use and emissions of ammonia – a potent air-polluting gas, which can combine with other forms of air pollution to result in small particles which can lodge 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. 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 ailments 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 its dirty air: “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.”
After Brexit, the UK will no longer be held 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 put in place measures to reduce the problem.
The new air pollution strategy is intended to remedy this, but 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, or whether these are at the discretion of the current and future governments.
Simon Alcock, head of public affairs at ClientEarth, the legal advocacy group that has taken the government to court on numerous occasions, called for a clearer framework: “Action to protect people’s health must be a requirement, not a nice-to-have.”
Gove said that 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 breathing passages – was only part of the problem.
Morten Thaysen, 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.”
‘Air pollution continues to shorten lives, harm our children and reduce quality of life’ Michael Gove Environment secretary