Tackling air pollution
Adam Crook, of Defra’s air quality team, discusses the challenge of tackling air pollution and outlines the steps being taken to improve air quality. Poor air quality impacts negatively on public health and the environment, with significant economic costs.
The quality of the air that we breathe is of great importance to us all, yet addressing it can be seen to be a barrier to development and economic growth.
While we no longer have the same problems with air pollution that we did during the Great Smog of 1952, which caused thousands of deaths in just a few days, there still remains more that we must do to improve air quality in order to improve human health, protect the environment and to meet the requirements of European legislation. This will require hard choices to be made, and changes to our behaviour in order to reduce our impacts on air quality in pursuit of sustainable development.
Air pollution’s impacts on health and the environment
The impacts of air pollution on human health are recognised in the Government’s public health white paper, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our Strategy for Public Health in England. Studies suggest that air pollution causes an average decrease in life expectancy in the UK of approximately six months, which increases for those who suffer from a range of illnesses affecting the heart or the lungs. The economic costs of this are estimated at up to £19 billion per year.
Air quality significantly affects our environment, damaging plants and animals and reducing our crop yields. As set out in the natural environment white paper, The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, a healthy and properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing.
Meeting European standards
Our air quality has now reached the standards set by our European legislative framework for most pollutants in most areas but achieving and maintaining compliance in major urban areas is a challenge for most member states, including the UK. It has been difficult in the past to achieve the standards on particulate matter (PM10) in London but the European Commission has accepted our case for additional time to meet the limits in London. Meeting the limits for nitrogen dioxide in a number of roadside locations is particularly difficult, with transport emissions having a significant impact on local air quality. Unfortunately some EU measures, such as new diesel vehicle engine standards, have not delivered all the expected emission reductions across the EU.
Through the European Commission’s review of existing air quality legislation, we need to ensure that the regime is credible, focuses on outcomes and takes account of the compliance challenges faced by most member states. We expect that the review will explore the scope for further reducing the negative impacts of air pollution on our health and on the environment, and consider how to simplify and streamline the legislation to make it as effective as possible.
Further improvements to air quality
The Government is taking action to improve air quality further, working with our partners in local government and in industry. We recently submitted air quality plans to the European Commission, which set out over 80 national measures (e.g. electric vehicle support), plus a number of local measures aimed at improving air quality at particular ‘hot spots’, which are supported by the Government-funded Air Quality Grant.
Transport emissions remain one of the largest causes of air pollution in the UK, particularly in urban areas such as London, which is why we committed £5 million of additional funding to the Mayor of London for local transport measures in 2011 to reduce the risk of exceeding limit values for particulate matter. We are investigating the options for a national framework of Low Emission Zones, as already seen in London and some parts of the continent, to assess their potential in improving urban air quality.
Industrial emissions are also significant. The Government will be consulting in early 2012 on the Industrial Emissions Directive, which came into force in early January 2011. This Directive clarifies and simplifies seven existing directives, which it will replace, whilst maintaining a high level of environmental protection.
Addressing air quality in policy
Air quality policy cuts across the work of various different Government departments. We need to work in partnership across Government, thinking carefully about how air quality fits with other policies, the Government’s commitment to the growth agenda, and efforts to simplify regulation. Difficult decisions will need to be taken, and we must consider how our actions affect air quality.
Many of the measures that can reduce our impacts on climate change in pursuit of sustainable development will also have a beneficial effect on air quality. However, we need to prioritise measures which are mutually beneficial, such as the increased use of public transport, cycling and walking, and work carefully on measures where compromises may be required, such as on limiting emissions from biomass heat installations in urban areas. Only then can we view air quality as a proper consideration in sustainable development, rather than as a barrier to progress.
- Air quality: Defra’s work on air quality in the UK.
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