Anita Lloyd, director at Squire Patton Boggs writes for the Air Quality News Magazine about the most recent developments that are likely to inform the legal and policy direction of travel and air quality issues over the coming months.
There has been much discussion about the significant effects that the global economic and travel restrictions, arising from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, have had on air pollution levels, notably nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
Areas that have been affected by the virus have shown strong decreases in NO2, primarily because of reductions in transport.
With the majority of the workforce either at home because they cannot work, or working from home, and with rules on social distancing and only essential journeys taking place, most daily journeys ground to a halt for several months.
There have also been reports linking the severity of COVID-19 with air pollution, providing further reasons why air quality is one of the issues coming under scrutiny as we come out of lockdown.
As we start to unlock the economy, many workers are returning to their workplaces, and the wider population are making more journeys, whether to visit friends and family, take children to school or visit newly opened shops.
However, the message from the government is clear that you must avoid public transport if you can.
Without wider adjustments in transport policy, this is bound to result in some people choosing to make journeys by car that they would have previously made on public transport.
Whilst the pandemic may lead, in the longer term, to increases in home working and less commuting overall, there are still grave concerns about the impact that increased private car use could have on air quality.
We have picked out a few recent developments that may inform the likely legal and policy direction of travel on air quality issues over the coming months:
• A number of major cities that were planning to introduce clean air zones (CAZ) in 2020, including Manchester, Birmingham, Bath and Leeds, have delayed their CAZ due to the virus crisis and its profound economic effect on their cities.
These schemes are likely to be delayed until well into 2021, if not 2022. Transport for London has also suspended its Ultra-Low Emissions Zone until further notice. One unintended consequence of the virus, in delaying the introduction of CAZ, may be a slower improvement in air pollution levels in our large cities, putting aside the very immediate but temporary effect that major transport restrictions have had on air quality.
• In late May 2020, the All Party Parliamentary Group on air pollution launched its Air Quality Strategy to Reduce Coronavirus Infection, a report written using evidence from scientists, businesses and local authorities about the links between COVID 19 and air quality.
It features twelve proposals including continuing home working, increasing spaces for pedestrian and cyclists, more frequent public transport services to avoid crowding, improvements in indoor air quality and the adoption of World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality targets.
• The Environment Bill, which includes new legislation on air quality, such as proposals to set PM2.5 targets, was making its way through parliament just before lockdown.
The Bill was suspended until further notice, and so the legislation has been delayed. The Bill is expected to resume its progress in parliament before the summer recess, and it will be interesting to see if there is stronger support for enhanced air quality provisions, including the adoption of the WHO PM2.5 target, which is not part of the current proposal.
• NGO’s the Good Law Project and Mums for Lungs wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 2 June 2020 to request an urgent review of the government’s Clean Air Strategy, and other relevant policies relating to air quality, in accordance with the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights.
This request is made in light of the growing evidence of a link between poor air quality and both the incidence and severity of COVID-19.
There are, of course, many more pieces to the jigsaw, and wider concerns about how sustainability and environmental concerns are taken into consideration in the global recovery.
There are widespread calls, from business as well as citizens and NGOs, and not least from the Build Back Better campaign, for the post-COVID-19 economic recovery to be a green one and to promote the changes that we need to achieve those sustainability and decarbonisation goals. Improving air quality as we move forward will be a critical part of that green recovery.
This article first appeared in the July issue of the Air Quality News magazine, which you can read here.