Government still not joined up on air quality

27th April 2016


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Cohesive, cross-government action to tackle air pollution is still lacking, despite mounting evidence that poor air quality damages health and the environment, MPs have said.

The parliamentary environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee has scrutinised the government’s performance on improving air quality. Its report outlines the latest of several select committee inquiries on the issue in recent years and comes as the government faces further legal action from environmental lawyers ClientEarth over breaches of EU air pollution limits.

The government has set up an inter-ministerial group on clean growth to consider cross-departmental action on air quality and decarbonisation, which is chaired by Oliver Letwin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. But witnesses to Efra committee’s inquiry told MPs that the group was secretive, and does not publish information on its meetings, outcomes or action plans.

In response, Letwin acknowledged that the meetings were not normally made public, but that the group met regularly and would continue to do so for ‘a very considerable period’, since challenges posed by poor air quality would not be overcome rapidly.

The committee also criticised the environment department (Defra) for a lack of discussions on air quality with the transport department (DfT), citing evidence from the Local Government Association (LGA) that Defra had insufficient input in its policies.

The association said Defra’s main focus has been to ensure that councils provide a detailed picture of the problems associated with air pollution, rather than helping councils achieve improvements. Although individuals at Defra had been helpful in supporting council officers on reporting requirements and with access to data, the department had failed to provide strategic support in tackling the main causes of air pollution, it said.

The select committee urged the Cabinet Office to report to parliament before 21 July on actions it plans over the coming year to improve work across the government on reducing air pollution. MPs also said the government should introduce a duty to consider air quality when developing polices on all departments.

The Efra committee criticised Defra’s plans as being too narrowly focused on NO2 from traffic. The department must set out plans to cut emissions of all air pollutants from all sources, including industry, energy and farming, it said.

Although it is responsible for only a small proportion of emissions, MPs want the government to tackle emissions from shipping. Pollution hot spots need to tackle emissions from all sources, they said. Planning permissions for new shipping facilities must require appropriate mitigation measures from developers, including a requirement to provide electricity supply infrastructure at berth, the MPs recommended.

The agricultural sector should also be encouraged to step up action to reduce its contribution to air pollution, the report states, recommending that Defra work with the National Farmers’ Union to identify the extent to which the most effective air pollution measures are being used on farms. The information should be published and Defra should report to the committee on how it will use the data to better target and increase support for farmers to implement best practice. The environment department should also determine how to use funds from the EU common agricultural policy to achieve air pollution objectives, the report suggests.

Other recommendations by the committee include:

  • Defra should produce practical tools for policymakers to use in evaluating the costs and benefits of proposals to reduce air pollution, including using the findings of the Natural Capital Committee’s work on valuing air quality.
  • Defra should extend local authority powers to charge for driving in Clean Air Zones beyond the five cities currently covered. The department should give more flexibility to councils to tailor measures to best meet local circumstances, and local authorities should be compensated for the costs of implementing the zones beyond those they can recoup from charging drivers.
  • New EU limits on emissions from vehicles are too generous and the UK government should argue more robustly for lower thresholds to deliver reductions on the road that are equal to, or better than, current laboratory limits.
  • Defra should analyse the impact on UK air quality of Euro 6 vehicle emission standards and the new real-world driving emissions tests. Should either of these show that EU standards are failing to have the envisaged impact under current Defra plans, the department must make them more robust.

Meanwhile, the energy and climate select committee has published a report on its inquiry into the UK’s fifth carbon budget, which sets the maximum level of greenhouse gases the country can emit between 2028 and 2032. It agreed with the conclusion of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that the overall level of the budget should remain at 1,765MtCO2e, despite the increased ambition agreed at the UN climate talks in Paris to keep global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Nonetheless, the committee said the government needed to clearly set out how it would deal with a discrepancy between the assumed level of reductions for sectors under the EU emissions trading system and the actual level.

The MPs also recommended that the energy and climate department work with the CCC to explore options for incorporating consumption-based emissions data into policymaking and the potential to include them in future carbon budgets.

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