More must be done to clean freshest air ‘since industrial revolution’

Road tolls, cleaner technologies and leaving the car in the garage have all got a part to play in efforts to reduce air pollution, extend the average lifespan and cut costs of medical treatment, according to the Government.

Launching the consultation for a review of the UK’s Air Quality Strategy on Wednesday, Local Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw told edie Britain has the best air for over a century but is still missing targets to cut some key pollutants.

“The air we’re breathing now is cleaner than any time since the industrial revolution but there are a number of areas we need to do better in – particles, ozone and nitrates in particular are still problem areas,” he said.

“If you came back to London from 50 or 60 years ago the air would be unrecognisably cleaner. Thousands used to die every winter because of respiratory problems brought on by the smog and the same is true of some of our other industrial cities as well.

“We have come a long way since then but so have expectations, so we need to do better still.”

Mr Bradshaw said current levels of air pollution were reducing the average life expectancy and this needed to be addressed.

“It has a massive impact on human health leading to an average reduction of eight months on life expectancy, and a little bit of money spent making our air cleaner could save us around £1.4 billion a year in health costs,” he said.

“Air pollution is not declining as quickly as we expected and the bottom line is that we need to move faster if we are going to meet some of our targets.

“Despite reductions, pollutants from our cars, ships and industrial plants are still having a marked affect on our health…this trend cannot continue and the strategy will ensure it doesn’t.”

While the UK had met targets to cut harmful pollutants such as lead, carbon monoxide and benzene it was still failing to make a big enough dent in emissions of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter.

“The problems with particles tend to be localised in areas where we experience traffic congestion,” said the minister.

“It’s something we see repeated in most of our busy urban centres. Traffic growth is an inevitable consequence of economic growth and the growing affluence of society but its impact is exceeding the mitigating measures we’ve taken in terms of technology and investment in public transport, so we need to do more.”

He said air pollution was far from just an urban issue, however.

“Ozone if anything is a bigger problem in rural areas because of the way it interacts with chemicals in the air,” he told edie.

“Ironically the background pollution in urban areas lessens the impact.

“Acidification is also impacting habitats which are logically largely in rural areas and the places people see as pristine like Dartmoor in my own constituency are often feeling the worst of this.”

The draft review looks at several areas where action could be taken.

New technologies, energy efficiency in the home and industry as well as traffic management schemes such as London’s proposed Low Emissions Zone and road pricing all have a role to play, said the minister.

“Ken (Livingstone) is leading the way with the measures planned for London and we’d like other local authorities to look at this as well,” he said.

If implemented the strategy promises to increase life expectancy by three months by 2020 and will include incentives for cleaner vehicles, tighter European vehicle emissions standards, reductions in emissions from small combustion plants and, interestingly, efforts to make shipping less polluting.

“The growth in shipping represents economic growth and is a fairly sustainable form of transport but it also causes some of the problems affecting some of our most important natural sites, particularly in coastal areas,” explained Mr Bradshaw.

While the government will legislate to ensure reductions in pollutants are made across the board, the public too will need to be involved to make a real change.

“The public are becoming much more aware of the impact of their behaviour and the purchase choices they make on a whole range of environmental issues, particularly climate change, and we want them to start looking at air pollution in the same way,” Mr Bradshaw told edie.

“Transport choices like not always using their car for short journeys and taking public transport or walking and cycling which is not only good for the environment but healthy as well.

“Buying more efficient boilers, insulating homes – anything that leads to less combustion has to be a good thing.”

The consultation runs until July 11 and the revised strategy is expected to be published towards the end of the year.

“We want to hear from anyone who has a view – not just from experts and environmental NGOs,” said the minister.

“We want to hear from the public, from transport associations as well as the shipping and power industries.

“There is a whole range of sectors that should have an interest.”

Sam Bond

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