UK’s new air pollution strategy ‘hugely disappointing’, says Labour

A new clean air strategy published by the UK government has been criticised as "hugely disappointing" by the Labour party. Other groups said it did little to tackle the dirty diesel vehicles that are the main source of toxic air in urban areas.

The new strategy, announced on Tuesday by environment secretary, Michael Gove, aims to crack down on a wide range of pollutants. These include particulates from wet wood and coal burning in homes, ammonia emissions from farms and dust from vehicle tyres and brakes.

Ministers also want to give provide personalised pollution alerts to people and give local authorities new powers to cut pollution, all subject to public consultation.

The government said the new action would reduce the costs of air pollution to society by an estimated £1bn every year by 2020. The health costs of toxic air are currently estimated at £20bn a year, by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The new clean air strategy is a response to an EU directive on cutting harmful emissions. An air quality plan, published in July 2017, is related to a separate EU directive on cleaner air. The latter plan was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors, and was ruled illegally poor in February, the third such high court defeat for ministers.

On Thursday, the government suffered another legal blow, with the UK referred to Europe’s highest court over its failure to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution, which mostly comes from diesel vehicles.

Gove said: “Air quality has improved significantly since 2010 but 60 years on from the historic Clean Air Act a clear truth remains – air pollution is making people ill, shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment.

“This is why we are launching this clean air strategy, backed up with new primary legislation,” he said. “It sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of government to improve air quality.”

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Air pollution is contributing to a national health crisis. We have a responsibility to stop this issue at source. Today’s [strategy] does just that, taking a giant step towards cleaning up our air for good.”

However, Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, said: “It’s hugely disappointing that despite being dragged through the courts time and again on its inadequate air quality plans, the government is dragging its feet by announcing yet another consultation.” She said Gove had issued more than 25 consultations since the 2017 general election, but none had yet produced new laws.

James Thornton, the CEO of the environmental lawyers ClientEarth who have defeated ministers three times in court, said: “Road transport is still the main source of illegal air pollution in our towns and cities. We need a national network of clean air zones (CAZs) to take the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted areas.”

The government’s own research shows CAZs, in which cars are deterred from city centres by pollution charges, are by far the most effective solution to air pollution. But ministers refused to make them compulsory, instead making them a voluntary and last-resort option for local authorities.

Greenpeace and the British Lung Foundation both backed the call for CAZs. Paul Morozzo, at Greenpeace, also said proposed new powers for local government looked like ministers passing the buck: “It looks like local authorities are being handed responsibility without the clarity on where the resources will come from.”

Details of the government’s new proposals were not available. But on domestic wood and coal burning it said it would legislate to ensure “only the cleanest domestic fuels” will be on sale. This may include wood bearing the “Ready to Burn” logo which indicates low moisture content. Wood and coal burning in homes contributes almost 40% of emissions of small particulate pollution, PM2.5, which is especially damaging to health.

Ammonia from manure and fertilisers on fields blows into cities and is a significant contributor to particle pollution. Ministers want to require farmers to invest in better slurry control and fertiliser application, perhaps supported by grants from a revised farm subsidy scheme.

Particulate pollution is below EU limits in most parts of the UK, but it is above the stricter World Health Organization limits for 90% of the population. The government has now set a goal to halve the number of people living in such areas by 2025. Another action to help achieve this is “working with international partners to research and develop new standards” for tyres and brakes that shed fewer particles.

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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