UK draft air quality policy criticised as too weak

John Prescott has published the Government's draft Air Quality Strategy amid calls from Friends of the Earth (FoE) for more stringent controls on ozone and small particles.

The Deputy Prime Minister also announced a record improvement in air quality for 1998. FoE says that the Government’s own data suggests that 1999 has already seen more air quality exceedances than the whole of 1998, with last year’s improvements merely the result of cooler summer temperatures.

Announcing the draft Air Quality Strategy, Prescott took the opportunity of pointing out 1998’s 38% reduction over 1997 in air pollution levels in UK’s urban areas. Rural air quality improved during the same period by 25%.

But FoE has accused Prescott of publicising an improvement that owes little to long-term reductions in pollutant levels and more to weather conditions that help keep air pollution levels low. According to FoE, Government monitoring shows that, at 57 out of 70 monitoring sites for ozone, there have already been more exceedances of health standards in 1999 than there were during the whole of 1998.

The Air Quality Strategy will be published in early 2000, following the current period of consultation. The draft strategy proposes the following:

  • Bringing forward the date for achieving objectives for benzene, 1,3-butadiene and carbon monoxide from 2005 to 2003. A long-term policy for benzene reduction will also be set.
  • Bringing forward the date for achieving the objective for lead from 2005 to 2004 and another objective being set for 2008.
  • Annual objective for nitrogen dioxide to remain unchanged, but the hourly objective to be tightened. London’s ability to meet the hourly objective will be looked at again in two years’ time and a nitrogen dioxide objective for the protection of vegetation will be introduced in 2000.
  • Objectives for ozone and sulphur dioxide to remain unchanged. A new sulphur dioxide objective for the protection of ecosystems will be introduced in 2000.
  • Objectives for small particles (PM10) will be reduced. The current PM10 objective, set in 1997, has been identified as “unrealistic and unachievable” and will be replaced with the PM10 targets from EU’s Air Quality Daughter Directive.

Prescott has acknowledged that current UK air pollutant levels remain “unacceptably high”. FoE says it does not believe that the proposed Air Quality Strategy is as tough as the Government claims it is.

FoE says it is particularly worried by the Government’s proposed relaxation of targets regarding small particles (PM 10) and its proposal to maintain “a weak target for ozone, responsible for up to 12,500 premature deaths every year.”

With traffic emissions contributing the majority of air quality pollutants in most urban areas of the UK, the Government has reiterated its desire to see more people use public transport, purchase vehicles that meet tougher emission standards and to walk or cycle whenever possible. “Drivers and their passengers can be exposed to up to three times as much pollution as pedestrians and cyclists since they are, in effect, in a tunnel of pollution,” stated Prescott.

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