UK pollution levels: Are we doing enough?

Here in the UK, we’re at something of a crossroads when it comes to emerging policies and standards to tackle air pollution. The policies of the new Mayor of London, coupled with the UK referendum vote to leave the EU, could all have an impact on how we deal with this important topic.

How bad is UK air quality?

There are nearly 10,000 pollution related deaths in London each year.

These deaths are considered to primarily be a result of the toxic gas NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), which has been shown to affect lung capacity and growth in infants and is associated with respiratory diseases in all ages. The other main pollutants of concern are the small particles known as PM10 and PM2.5, which are considered carcinogenic and can also cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Both pollutants are derived from the combustion of fuel, primarily generated in the UK by road traffic.

How has government responded to date?

Unlike the thick, coal-emission killer smogs that enveloped London prior to the Clean Air Act of 1956, NO2 is largely invisible. This might be one of the reasons that both central government and the previous London Mayor have been criticised by some for being too slow to act. Research shows that:

  • In certain areas of the city, NO2 concentrations are 3 times the safe and legal limit and regardless of measures put in place, levels are not decreasing significantly.
  • The UK government has also been recently sued by Alan Andrews of ClientEarth for allowing illegal pollution levels.

It’s clear that more needs to done in order to clean up the air we breathe and to help reduce the high level of annual pollution related deaths cited above.

New mayor, clean air?

The recently elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has chosen air quality as the target for his first major policy announcement. The Mayor’s plans to improve air quality in London include:

  • Almost doubling the size of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which in future is likely to include the entire area between the North and South Circular roads.
  • Introduction of an Emissions Surcharge (T-charge) on the most polluting vehicles using the existing Congestion Charging Zone (potentially from 2017).

Mr Khan has drawn attention to the increasing burden being placed on the NHS, owing to sickness and disease from air pollution. But he also recognises that the recent Brexit vote might pose significant challenges to improving air quality.

So will future action on air pollution match the new Mayor’s ambitions?

The EU question

Prior to the Brexit vote, the EU has been a prime driver in attempting to improve air quality across Europe. In 2008, the EU introduced legislation setting safety limits on air pollution in towns and cities.

Now, new EU proposals aim to do more to improve air quality across Europe. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have voted for faster, deeper cuts to air pollution with the aim of saving tens of thousands of lives.

These MEPs, sitting on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, were voting on a draft law, which is an update of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive. It would set national targets for emissions of six pollutants, to be met by 2025. Up until now, such targets have been voluntary for member states, but the new EU law, when adopted, would make them legally binding.

Will the UK follow these directives when not bound by EU legislation?

There is currently evidence that make this appear unlikely, bearing in mind:

  • The UK failed to achieve 2008 EU legislation targets set for 2010. Six years on, in 2016, 38 out of 43 air quality zones across the country are still breaching those limits.
  • Lobbying from the UK diluted the aims of the original EU proposal.

Time to ‘Act’?

The EU directive of 2008 is the current standard for UK action on air quality. So now the question has to be posed:

Do we need a new clean air act?

The Clean Air Act was introduced sixty years ago in 1956. The Act followed the Great Smog of 1952. The smog lasted for five days, resulting in around 12,000 fatalities.

Such a death toll could be described as a massacre on an unprecedented scale, and yet the Great Smog wasn’t a stand-alone incident. Air pollution had been hazardous to the health of UK city dwellers since the 13th century and was a serious problem in London from the 19th century onwards. It took the major tragedy of 1952 to bring about the Clean Air Act of 1956. That Act had a major impact on the air of our cities and the health of our citizens.

But that was sixty years ago. Since then the causes, types and effects of air pollutants have changed. New legislation needs to be introduced in order to protect us from them. The question is: does our government require even higher numbers of pollution related deaths in order to act again?

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