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Clean Air Strategy: leading figures react to ‘missed opportunity’

Leading figures from business and industry as well as charities and health campaigners have been reacting to the government’s Air Quality Strategy, which was published this morning.

Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, said the strategy doesn’t go far enough.

‘The government has made a welcome commitment to set an ambitious new target for cleaning up the most dangerous fine particle air pollution, based on World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

‘But while the WHO says standards should be reached by 2030, there is no date set in the government’s strategy and the plan is severely lacking in detail on how such a target could be met.

‘The biggest problem with our currently illegal NO2 air pollution is road transport – and cars and other vehicles are also a key source of particle pollution, both from exhausts and also brake and tyre wear.

‘We, therefore, need much stronger measures to ensure we not only have cleaner vehicles on our roads but also fewer of them, as well as improving public transport and supporting the switch to electric vehicles.

‘If the government is serious about protecting our health, and the health of the planet, it must scrap new road building plans which would add to the problem, and phase out petrol and diesel vehicles faster than planned.’

Jennifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, called the strategy a ‘missed opportunity.’

‘With just 271 air quality monitoring stations throughout the UK, this strategy was an opportunity to improve our understanding of emissions, both across different sectors and the UK, and air pollution’s role in contributing to nearly 40,000 early deaths a year.

‘We need legally binding commitments, particularly for transport and energy systems, that could help improve the quality of the air we breathe across the UK. Local authorities have already been given responsibility for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, but we need to be making a determined effort to deal with transport emissions more broadly.

‘We called for a Clean Air Act in our ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ report, where we outlined our need for coherent and consistent monitoring of transport emissions, so informed targets can be set. We recommended incentives for freight deliveries outside peak hours and highlighted the potential to retrofit diesel trains to cut emissions while trains are standing at platforms.

‘The Institution went further in our ‘Energy from Gas’ report, and identified the possibilities for hydrogen that can be used in all areas of our energy system producing a low particulate and low greenhouse gas emissions fuel for transport, reducing the CO2 emissions from our heating systems, reused to generate electricity as well as providing a greener feedstock for industries such as ammonia and plastics production.

‘Monitoring the UK’s emissions more effectively would provide better evidence and help us decide on the best solutions for our communities. In particular, we would like to see the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs work with the Department for Transport to introduce emission monitoring equipment across our transport network (e.g. in streets, underground stations, enclosed railway stations, ports, airports) along with real-time on-vehicle monitoring.’

EIC Executive Director Matthew Farrow praised the government’s ambition in the document, saying there could be a post-Brexit boom in air pollution control technology.

‘Whatever course Brexit takes in the next few years, thousands of people will still be dying from air pollution.  It is welcome to see the Government recognising that we must do better, and starting to set targets to cut particulate levels to WHO limits, something EIC has been arguing for since 2015. It is crucial that the Environment Bill sets legally-binding targets to bring pollution down to safe levels and that the proposed Office of Environmental Protection has the powers to hold future governments to account on this agenda.

‘The breadth of the Strategy is also welcome, with proposals covering air pollution from agriculture, shipping, construction machinery and household  products.  In many areas though detail remains light and EIC wants to work with Minsters to develop the detail rapidly.

‘It’s also worth noting that the ambition the government is indicating, if followed through into hard policy, can help make the UK a leading centre of air pollution control technology, with huge export potential in a post-Brexit economy.’

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation called the strategy a ‘step in the right direction.’

‘In particular, it’s good to see it includes proposals to improve access to air pollution information, something many of the patients we support ask for. It also acknowledgges World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines as the best standard to abide by.

‘However, we’re disappointed that it doesn’t include a clear commitment to adopt the WHO limits for particulate matter pollution in the upcoming Environment Bill.

‘No one should have to breathe toxic air, especially not people with a lung condition or children whose lungs are still growing. Our current legal limits are twice as high as WHO recommendations, and too many people are still exposed to unsafe air pollution levels which puts the lung health of all of us at risk.’

Neil Parish MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, believes the new measures will help to reduce agriculture emissions but warned that the government must take stronger action against carmakers.

‘We know that farmers are working harder than ever before to reduce their emissions. With more agricultural research and development, I am confident the farming sector will reduce its emissions.

‘We also welcome the Secretary of State’s proposed ban on open fire fuels and some log burners, as well as his commitment to give new powers to local authorities.

‘However, we should not forget that inner city areas suffer the most with poor air quality. We would like to see the Government take stronger action against car manufacturers as part of any upcoming legislation to improve air quality.

‘The car industry is partly responsible for our toxic streets, and seeing the Government resist calls for an industry-financed Clean Air Fund following the recent release of our joint report on ‘Improving Air Quality’ remains incomprehensible.’

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