National Air Quality Conference 2019: the report

Over 180 delegates packed into a sold-out Lord’s Cricket Ground on Tuesday (November 12) to attend the Air Quality News National Air Quality Conference 2019.

Our expert speakers delivered several thought-provoking, emotive and passionate presentations on the clean air agenda. Themes of the day included whether the public health risks of air pollution are finally being taken seriously, how technology could save us from toxic air and why the government is failing to step up on air pollution.

First to present was Polly Billington, director of UK100, a network of city leaders committed to clean air.

Polly Billington, director UK100

She laid down the gauntlet for local authorities to be bolder in tackling toxic air and not kowtowing to those who may want to see ambition diluted.

‘Some people are doing some things well but we need everyone to do everything well,’ she said.

Polly heaped praise on Birmingham City Council for being the only local authority to pledge to charge private cars to enter its Clean Air Zone (CAZ), against some pretty vociferous public pressure.

‘Brave administrations don’t blame others, they take responsibility’, she said.

Cllr Anna Richardson

Cllr Anna Richardson, city convener for sustainability & carbon reduction at Glasgow City Council told delegates of the successes so far of Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ), which came into effect on December 31st, 2018.

Like Birmingham, she said the authority has stood firm against dissenting voices of the charging zone, as they have a clear picture of what they want the LEZ to achieve.

‘We were told we were introducing the LEZ too quickly and we were told we were introducing it too slowly,’ she said.

She called the LEZ, which is initially encouraging cleaner bus travel, a ‘strong driver for improvement’ and is already encouraging people to leave their car at home. The LEZ will also help women with children, who may have different travel patterns, to travel more easily across the city, she added.

However, Cllr Richardson was clear that CAZs and LEZs must not be just an opportunity to swap petrol and diesel for EVs, which do nothing for congestion and can make the public realm feel like a pretty unwelcoming places for pedestrians. ‘There is nothing more sustainable than walking,’ she said, adding that ‘We will not allow EVs to create pavement clutter’.

Catherine Westoby

Catherine Westoby from Transport for London (TfL) spoke about the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and praised Londoners’ adaptability, with the latest results showing that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have been cut by a third. To doubters of the scheme, she said that ‘Londoners are changing their behaviour.’

However, she conceded that much more work is still to be done, particularly around the issue of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, which still blights much of the city.

According to City Hall statistics, 2 million Londoners still live in areas with illegal air quality which Ms Westoby called ‘unacceptable’.

She looked ahead to the ULEZ expansion in 2021, which will see its net widened with what she hopes are even more positive outcomes.

Christopher Snelling

Christopher Snelling, head of UK Policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA) gave a combative defence of the UK’s freight industry and said they are doing everything they can to cut emissions without hurting local economies. ‘We’re not all here to agree with everyone,’ he said.

He bluntly called CAZs ‘overrated’ and said they are regulating on existing EU regulations on emissions.

Mr Snelling called on the government to incentivise truck manufacturers to deliver more zero-emission HGVs and vans on a larger scale and to deliver more efficient transport infrastructure to improve congestion, which he said is hugely damaging for air pollution.

He also said more can be done to facilitate off-peak deliveries wherever possible.

Jonathan Werran

Jonathan Werran, chief executive of think tank Localis, was next to speak about unbalanced infrastructure funding, which he says is creating a ‘Dickensian tale of two cities’ in many urban areas.

He also urged councils to be clearer on their environmental and air quality ambitions. Whilst many have declared climate emergencies, he suggested they are meaningless soundbites without a real commitment to change.

‘Climate emergencies are vapid without policy,’ he added.

Mr Werran wasn’t the only speaker on the day to ask the government to do more for the rest of the country on air pollution.

‘Stoke and Hull, for example, experience air pollution just like anywhere else, but they lack the funds to do anything about it’.

Simon Jeffrey from Centre for Cities discussed how city centres have been transformed over the past couple of decades into attractive places to live – but he offered the warning that we ‘must make more efficient use of our cities’ to improve air quality.

Simon Jeffrey

He said city centres offer businesses specific benefits that other places can’t. However, as job density grows the roads become much less efficient, which affects the quality and reliability of public transport.

He said the goal for cities must be reducing its dependence on car use. An admirable utopian vision, but he suggested that government ramp up spending on transport infrastructure to make this vision a reality.

Air Quality News magazine contributor and King’s College London scientist Dr Gary Fuller has been at the cutting edge of air pollution research for over 25 years, and he was perfectly placed to give delegates an entertaining yet alarming run through the history of air pollution in the UK.

Dr Gary Fuller

He began in medieval London in 1661 and moved to the 1850s when smoke was even encouraged as an antidote to tuberculosis and to 1952 and the ‘Great Smog’ of London.

His key message was that to present a positive vision of the future we must ‘heed the warnings’ of past mistakes.

‘Air pollution is becoming mainstream but it’s difficult to piece all the information together to form a consistent narrative,’ he said.

Dr Fuller presented perhaps the most powerful visual of the day — 2 eggs on a screen — which represented the reduced lung capacity of a child who has grown up around high levels of toxic air.

Larissa Lockwood

Larissa Lockwood from Global Action Plan and Nick Martin from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) gave a joint presentation on the Clean Air Hospital Framework, which is being pioneered at GOSH this year.

Larissa blasted the government for ‘passing the buck’ on air pollution and said they must treat it as a public health issue and fund it via the Department for Health and Social Care rather than it being the responsibility of Defra.

‘The Department of Health needs to step up if government is to take air pollution seriously’, she said.

Nick Martin

Nick Martin of Great Ormond Street Hospital gave an emotional speech about GOSH’s ‘Play Street’, which reimagined a road outside into a rainbow-themed play area, with a host of activities championing the therapeutic, emotional and psychological benefits of play, in a safe, clean-air environment.

He said Play Street was full of ‘Joy, wonder and smiling.’

Sarah McFadyen of the British Lung Foundation (BLF) presented some damning statistics that showed how lung conditions are exacerbated by exposure to air pollution.

Sarah MacFadyen

The BLF has been on the front line in reducing people smoking cigarettes in recent years and Sarah said that the air pollution movement can learn a lot from how smoking behaviour has been radically changed.

‘Smoking rates have been slashed so attitudes can change. There is a lot to learn from the anti-smoking movement,’ she said.

Dr Dawid Hanak from Cranfield University gave a presentation on carbon capture and storage. The technology has long been touted as a potential solution to industrial emissions, and trials are underway at Drax, North Yorkshire. However, widespread adoption still looks a long way off.

Dr Dawid Hanak

‘We’ve run the demo and the tech works – but when we want to upscale it, there aren’t the available tools,’ he said.

A day after the conference, the government pledged to invest £800m in the infrastructure needed to establish Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) clusters. So watch this space.

Dr Ben Todd from Arcola Energy gave the final presentation of the day.

He forgoed the lectern to give an energetic presentation on the potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Dr Ben Todd

He asked delegates why 1 million diesel engines are still being produced yet only a couple of thousand hydrogen fuel cells are in production.

His mission is to make the technology more mainstream, which he says can solve both the clean air problem as well as harnessing renewable energy.

Dr Todd is fulfilling a dream he had 20 years ago to build a hydrogen factory in Liverpool – which should be ready in 2020 to help power the region’s hydrogen buses.

Finally, a Clean Air panel took to the stage which included Dr Gary Fuller, Larissa Lockwood, Simon Jeffrey, Freddie Talberg from EMSOL and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah from the Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

They fielded questions on a range of topics, including wood-burning stoves – which Larissa said will hopefully become as socially unacceptable as smoking a cigarette.

The government’s much delayed Environment Bill was brought up, which Rosamund called ‘toothless’, adding that government departments must stop blaming each other and work together to tackle the problem.

Dr Fuller said we must not ‘conflate a lack of resources with a lack of political will’.

‘All politicians need to step up to the mark,’ he added, suggesting that leaders have the chance to forge a real legacy if they are bolder on air pollution.

However, he questioned how far up the agenda air pollution has been in the current general election campaigns, saying that the solutions are often not ‘politically palatable’.

‘Has anyone mentioned air pollution?’ he asked.

Thank you to Vortex, who was our event partner.