We read the UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery package. Our lungs deserve better.

Dominic Phinn, business engagement lead at environmental law charity ClientEarth writes for Air Quality News about whether the government’s COVID-19 recovery package is enough to tackle air pollution. 

Many people have noticed cleaner air and clearer skies during lockdown. This has resulted in widespread calls from the general public, medical professionals, MPs and businesses for measures to clean up our air permanently – as the law has long required our government to do.

At the same time, it is increasingly clear we must use the recovery to build a strong, resilient economy with good quality jobs. But this is not going to happen by magic and will require significant investment and much stronger policy than we have seen to date.

In recent statements on the recovery, the UK government missed a key opportunity to boost clean transport and tackle air pollution, leaving the UK lagging behind leading EU countries.

Does the UK cash injection cut it?

Three court cases brought by ClientEarth against the UK government have highlighted the government’s failure to clean up the air in our towns and cities. The implication is clear: more action and funding are needed to move to a clean transport system where people can safely breathe, and this is what the court-ordered.

The Faraday Institute estimates that a focus on the manufacture of electric vehicles and associated technologies could increase employment in the UK’s automotive sector by almost a third – from 170,000 to 220,000 by 2040.

But what we’re seeing committed by the UK Government in the Summer Statement is not set to foster the development of this industry, or see these opportunities materialise.

Take the example of the proposed gigafactory in the West Midlands – a massive factory building batteries for electric vehicles – that Boris Johnson said his government would back.

The West Midlands Mayor and council leaders across the country have asked the government for £250 million to make this factory a reality. Instead, the Chancellor invited industry to put forward investment itself.

Beyond this, the only thing of note in terms of the transition to clean vehicles was the announcement that a mere £10 million would be made available from an existing fund announced last year to support ‘innovative R&D projects’ for the scale-up of manufacturing batteries, fuel cells, motors and electronics across the country.

This is clearly not nearly enough and pales in comparison to commitments from European counterparts who are putting green measures at the centre of their economic recovery.

Frontrunners are emerging

Germany’s automotive sector has been under fire since the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal broke in 2015 and a series of joint court cases (over 30 in total) brought by ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe since then has highlighted major issues with nitrogen dioxide pollution across the country. But the newly announced recovery package may see Germany striding forward with its mobility transformation.

Unlike the UK, Germany is allocating billions, not millions, to this effort. It will allocate €2 billion over two years to a fund for automotive industry transformation. Another €2.8 billion will be invested in charging infrastructure with every petrol station required to have a charging point.

Importantly and in spite of pressure from the powerful German auto lobby, the Federal government will exclude subsidies for new petrol and diesel vehicles.

France, which is also under fire in the courts over illegal air pollution, announced an €8 billion bailout plan targeted at the automotive sector.

This would include €1 billion in grants aimed at encouraging consumers to buy electric cars and would, in President Macron’s words, ‘make France Europe’s top producer of clean vehicles’.

Also as part of this plan, €1 billion will be directed to research and modernisation of automotive manufacturing and €750 million will be used to help suppliers of automotive parts to transition to components for electric vehicles.

To encourage spending, France and Germany will provide grants of up to €7,000 and VAT cuts for ZEEVs in order to stimulate demand for cleaner vehicles.

Finally, those countries are not only investing in clean vehicles, but they are also making public transport a big part of their green recovery plan.

Germany will spend €2.9 billion on improving public transport, a further €1.4 billion will go to fund electric buses and associated charging infrastructure, and a further €5.7 billion will be invested in the electrification, modernisation and expansion of the national rail network.

Meanwhile, the Spanish bailout plan also includes €300 million to improve public transport and €415 million for research, development and innovation.

Several cities in France, including Paris, have massively invested in greener forms of transport, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo being re-elected on the promise of scaling up these investments.

Where does this leave the UK?

Boris Johnson fleshed out his ambitions to ‘build back better, build back greener, build back faster’ and become ‘the home of electric vehicles’. But the government’s recovery plans contain little to give credence to his pitch.

All eyes will now be on the Chancellor’s statement in the autumn, where we need to see significant funding to incentivise demand and supply of clean vehicles while supporting people and businesses in their transition to cleaner forms of transport.

Air that is safe to breathe should not be a novelty – it must be the new normal. The government has a duty to provide the necessary resources to make this happen.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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