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Air quality plans ‘kick can down the road’

Stuart Spear18/11/2015 - 14:15

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Traffic pollution is linked to deaths
Traffic pollution is linked to deaths

The CIEH has criticised Defra for its approach to tackling the UK’s air pollution problem despite being in breach of EU limits for years.

In its response to Defra’s consultation on its draft air quality plans, the CIEH warns, the government is failing to address key issues such as attracting commuters off the roads, for example through cutting the price of rail travel, and reversing the trend in the use of diesel cars, that have over recent years out-paced the sale of petrol cars.

It said the government is failing to take an holistic approach to NO2 breaches and is relying largely on local authorities introducing clean air zones as a solution.

‘The problem with Defra’s approach is that it is hanging its hat almost completely on the implementation of “Clean Air Zones”, which in effect just pushes responsibility on to local authorities with no mention of how this is going to be realistically implemented or funded,’ warns CIEH principal policy officer Howard Price.

‘It`s not at all clear that the European Commission is going to be satisfied with the UK government kicking the can down the road as a sign that it is serious about its intent to address NO2 breaches as soon as possible.’

Around 80 per cent of NOx emissions in areas where the UK is exceeding NO2 levels are due to transport, in particular diesel vans and cars where emission standards have not met expectations and vehicle numbers have grown significantly.

Government figures show that the Greater London urban area, West Midlands urban area and West Yorkshire urban area will be in breach of NO2 emissions until after 2030. Tyneside, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol will not be compliant until 2025 unless significant abatement steps are taken

The UK has been in breach of the EU air quality directive since 2010.  

Under Defra`s proposals and subject to the forthcoming spending review local authorities will be `incentivised` to implement a Clean Air Zone to reduce NO2 emissions. Controls may be imposed on just buses, taxis and coaches, or may also include HGVs and light good vehicles. In some areas it may be necessary to exclude private diesel cars from city centres as well.

However the Defra plan fails to make clear where the money will come from to help local authorities fund clean air zones. Money will be needed to conduct feasibility studies around boundary zones, to assess what vehicles should be excluded, to provide monitoring infrastructures, signage and arrangements for charging.

‘Implementing a clean air zone is really not an easy thing to do, you have to consider displacement effects, vehicles are going to be diverted into other areas potentially causing pollution hot spots elsewhere or traffic congestion,’ warns Mr Price. ‘This is all going to take time and expertise which will, against the trend in local government staffing, need to be funded.’

Under the Environment Act 1995 the government has the power to instruct local authorities to implement clean air zones, if they decline to do so.

Earlier this year the UK Supreme Court ordered the government to prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European Commission by the end of 2015. The ruling followed a case taken by the environmental lawyer organisation Client Earth against Defra.

Client Earth announced this week that it has ‘no choice’ but to take the government back to court unless it makes ‘drastic and fundamental changes’ to its air quality plans which it describes as a ‘shambles’.

A Defra spokesperson said: ‘Tackling air pollution is a priority for this Government, which is why we have invested heavily in green transport, committing £2 billion since 2011. We are reviewing submissions to our recent consultation and will report back in December.’

Defra also points out that their consultation is seeking evidence from local authorities on the best measures to take to improve air quality and that it will be complying with the Supreme Court ruling and submit its air quality plans by 21 December 2015.

It is estimated that the NO2 effects on mortality are equivalent to 23,500 deaths annually in the UK.

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