Change is in the air

21st December 2017

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George Currie outlines some proposals in regard to improving air quality in the UK, drawing on other countries’ examples

The UK’s approach to tackling air pollution has been lacklustre. Although it is true that ‘pea soupers’ are, thankfully, a thing of the past, the scale of the problems caused by poor air quality remains substantial.

Air pollution is not only a contributing factor to climate change; it is also responsible for a host of other environmental problems, including acid rain, animal welfare issues, and crop and forest damage. The consequences for human health are equally serious. People of all ages suffer from a diverse range of chronic conditions as a result of air pollution, such as cancer, bronchitis, asthma and cardiovascular disease.

The impact of poor air quality on the UK’s economic performance is no less significant. According to official estimates, particulate matter in air across the UK reduces average life expectancy by six months, which costs the economy in the region of £16 billion every year. Moreover, recent research by the Royal College of Physicians found that the combined annual cost to UK businesses and health services of air pollution is a staggering £20 billion.

The serious economic, environmental and human costs occasioned by high levels of a whole range of pollutants require a completely new approach to improving air quality.

The future is French

The UK government has committed to bring forth a new Clean Air Strategy in 2018. For it to achieve a marked reduction in the degree of air pollution faced by Britons today, this strategy needs to be truly comprehensive. France offers a striking example of a country that has developed an all-encompassing approach to this problem.

The Plan de Réduction des Emissions de Polluants Atmosphériques (PRÉPA) is the result of an impressive body of scientific research. In it, the French government identifies not only the principal emissions polluting France’s airspace, but also each of their main sources (agriculture, industry, residential housing and transport). In order to deal with each of the sources of pollution, the PRÉPA outlines a series of targeted measures aimed at reducing emissions.

The result is a dramatic reduction in forecast emissions between now and 2030. According to official estimates, nitrogen oxide emissions will be 50% lower in 2020, compared to 2005 levels, and 69 per cent lower by 2030. The impact of the PRÉPA on particulate matter is forecast to be almost as significant, with a predicted reduction in emissions of 57% by 2030. The level of ammonia, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants present in French airspace will also be significantly lower by the end of the next decade.

Perhaps as impressive as the forecast reductions in air pollution is the commitment that the French administration has shown to delivering on these objectives. The PRÉPA is a genuinely inter-ministerial plan that will rely on the co-operation of departments right across government. It will be overseen by the independent Conseil national de l’air (National Air Council), which will report on progress at least once a year. And, it will be revised at least every five years to ensure that the sources of air pollution it targets remain the most pressing and the measures utilised to reduce them the most appropriate. These are the right governance arrangements to achieve sustained improvements in air quality.

L’air du temps

The French approach to reducing air pollution provides UK policy makers with a useful example of how a modern Clean Air Strategy can be designed and implemented.

It is clear that the 2018 strategy must go beyond measures to deal with emissions from road transport and tackle pollution from other sources, such as rail and aviation, as well as industry, agriculture and residential dwellings. Although road vehicles are in many areas the most significant source of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, they are not the only ones.

In London, for example, 49% of nitrogen oxide emissions come from non-road transport (11%), the built environment (37%) and other sources (1%). The sources of particulate matter in the capital are equally diverse. The balance in other urban and non-urban areas across the country will be different and the Government must ensure that its new approach is flexible enough to deal with this sort of variation.

As in France, reducing air pollution requires the co-operation of a range of government departments and all tiers of the state – national, regional and local. To deliver this sort of joint initiative, a new ‘Inter-Ministerial Group on Air Pollution’ is required that will be able to co-ordinate the diverse strands of government. This approach has been used in other areas to tackle persistent problems and create innovative solutions. Examples include the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Modern Slavery, the Cross-Ministerial Group on Tobacco Smuggling and, most recently, the Clean Growth Inter-Ministerial Group.

In order to ensure that the new ‘Inter-Ministerial Group on Air Pollution’ implements the 2018 Clean Air Strategy effectively, it needs to be overseen by an appropriate body. In previous decades, the temptation would have been to propose a new QUANGO or non-departmental body. However, times have moved on. If we are to recognise the need for oversight while respecting the UK’s unique institutional setting, the new ministerial group should be fully accountable to parliament.

The renewed focus on air pollution among policy makers over the course of the last year has created the intellectual and political space for a new approach to improving air quality. Best practice from abroad offers an indication of what an effective roadmap might look like in the UK. As a result, policy makers have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of present and future generations through the development of a new and far-reaching plan to clean up the UK’s air.

George Currie is deputy chairman of a group called Clean Air for Brent (CAfB)


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