UK air pollution


Thérèse Coffey acknowledges that the UK cannot meet the experts’ recommended air pollution target.

The secretary of the environment sets a lower 10-year goal for cleaner air, but researchers say stronger action is necessary to reach their goal.

As she unveiled a new environmental plan, the environment secretary acknowledged that the government is unable to achieve the improvements in air quality that medical experts recommend, so it has decreased its targets for the next ten years.

Thérèse Coffey said on Tuesday: “We have cleaner air. I want it to be even cleaner. Now, I would have loved to have made our target to achieve 10 micrograms [of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, per cubic metre of air] by 2030, not 2040. Many parts of the country already enjoy this, but the evidence shows us that with the best will in the world we cannot achieve that everywhere by the end of the decade, particularly in London.”

However, experts on air pollution cited research from King’s College London and Imperial College London that demonstrated that the government could achieve the more stringent targets, which are supported by polls, if it took stronger action on the sources of pollution, such as diesel cars and wood-burning power plants.

Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of charity Asthma + Lung UK, said: “Air pollution is a public health emergency which causes 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. The government has ignored our calls to bring forward its compliance date, and instead said it will make our air cleaner by 2040. This falls far short of what’s needed – it means that for another 17 years, children will be forced to live, learn and play in toxic levels of air pollution, and a new generation will be condemned to breathe air so dirty it can stunt their lung growth, cause lung conditions like cancer, and trigger existing conditions including asthma.”

Coffey also said that people should be “educated” on how to use wood-burning stoves instead of being banned. New wood burners will be subject to stricter regulations; in designated “smoke control areas,” they will be permitted to emit no more than 3 grams of smoke per hour, as opposed to the current limit of 5 grams. However, Coffey stated that she would like to “avoid fingerpointing” by cracking down on those who already use stoves.

Client Earth’s clean air campaigns and policy manager Andrea Lee stated that most urban residents had access to alternative heating methods and should be encouraged to use them. She stated, “There should be a phasing out of wood burning in urban areas.”

Wood-burning stoves are now the primary cause of air pollution in many areas and are increasingly being used in urban areas for aesthetic reasons. Their installation is typically costly.

Other than a multimillion-pound new fund to protect some species, such as hedgehogs and red squirrels, Coffey also confirmed that there would be no significant new funding for achieving the goals outlined in the 262-page Environmental Improvement Plan, which was released on Tuesday.

To encourage farmers to adopt greener practices, some agricultural leaders have stated that new funding sources would be required.

But Mark Spencer, the farming minister, told the Guardian that farmers were already receiving £2.4bn of public payments a year, and this should be enough. “People in agriculture want to have a really positive impact on the environment, and we need to get them on the ladder of aspiration,” he said. “We are pushing on an open door with lots of farmers in the UK, they think all the time of the environment. It’s a privilege to be farming and working in the UK’s beautiful landscape.”

The government should also be required to incorporate green space into new developments, according to campaigners. Natural England is creating a comprehensive map of green spaces in order to fulfill the ministers’ pledge to ensure that every home has access to a waterway or green space within a 15-minute walk.

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said: “What we have discovered by undertaking this map is that some of the most deprived communities have least access to green space. Environmental improvement is also a levelling out of some of the inequalities in this country.”

Richard Benwell, chief executive of the conservation group Wildlife and Countryside Link, said that local authority planners should be obliged to include access to nature and green spaces in new planned developments. “Too many people live in polluted, nature-deprived neighbourhoods, at great cost to mental and physical health,” he said. “Billions of pounds could be saved for the NHS if everyone lived in a healthy environment, and millions of lives could be brightened.”

Targets and measures to address a wide range of environmental issues, including the loss of species, pollution in the air and water, waste, and recycling, are included in the EIP that was presented on Tuesday. It is required by the Environment Act to provide a plan that can be implemented.

It came after the statutory watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, complained last week that nearly every environmental measure in the UK was failing or making very little progress.

Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the OEP, told the Guardian on Tuesday she welcomed the EIP. But she added: “It’s all about delivery now. The targets are good, but we need to see delivery.”

Many environmentalists were concerned about flaws in the plan, such as the fact that, despite requiring dual flush toilets, it does little to compel water companies to stop dumping sewage into rivers.

Doug Parr, UK policy director at Greenpeace UK, said: “If this is a roadmap, it’s a roadmap to the cliff edge. This Conservative government promised the most ambitious environmental plan of any country on earth. Instead, here’s yet more paperwork containing a threadbare patchwork of policies that fail to tackle many of the real threats to our natural world. This won’t do.”

Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: “Since [Coffey] has been in post, the Conservatives have breached a statutory deadline for publishing environmental targets, shown a lack of interest in the sewage scandal by refusing to meet water bosses, and announced measures that inflict more sewage dumping and toxic air on our country for longer.”



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