Gove sets out plan to tackle air pol­lu­tion

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Fiona Har­vey En­vi­ron­ment cor­re­spon­dent

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

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