Simon Birkett: We're choking to death while the Government dithers

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Live in a big city and you risk suffering from fumes, breathing problems, even premature death. Yet the Government has spent 10 years in denial about the UK's air-quality problems. The rest of us know differently, and action is long overdue.

For change to happen, UK citizens look set to have to rely on the EU framework that first put legal force behind World Health Organisation guidelines for air quality in 1999. That framework was updated on last month, when a new directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe came into force – the AQ Directive. Now we need those directives to be translated into action.

Poor air quality has serious implications for public health. It results in between 12,000 and 24,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. Those with asthma, lung diseases and heart conditions are most susceptible. These numbers compare with some 617 such deaths per annum from workplace-related passive smoking before recent legislation came into force, and up to 22,000 premature deaths per year related to alcohol consumption. The Rogers Review in 2006 estimated that, in 2005, the UK's annual cost of health impacts from one form of air pollution alone, called particulate matter (or PM10), was between £9.1bn and £21bn per annum.

This public health crisis is not surprising when air pollution near our busiest streets is so bad. During 2007 in London, for example, the average annual concentrations of a toxic gas called nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Marylebone Road, King's Road and Brompton Road were 102, 91 and 94 micrograms per cubic metre (g/m3) respectively. These measurements compare with the WHO's guideline, set in 2000 and reconfirmed by EU law in 2005, of a maximum average annual concentration of 40 g/m3. The stuff we're breathing in hardly bears thinking about.

The Government has failed to deliver WHO recommended standards of air quality throughout the UK. Fortunately, Article 22 in the new AQ Directive provides, among other things, that the UK cannot get a time extension from meeting its legal obligations for NO2 by January 2010 unless it ensures that average annual concentrations of NO2 remain below 60 g/m3 across the UK thereafter. This means that air pollution near London's busiest streets, for example, must be reduced by more than one third in just over 18 months.

One result of this is that Article 22 could stop the Heathrow expansion in its tracks. The issue should also concern London Mayor Boris Johnson as he reconsiders the western extension to the Congestion Charge zone. Then there are the London Olympics in 2012. The organisers would face a public relations disaster if the European Court of Justice took enforcement action against the UK for breaching Article 22 in the months leading up to the Games.

At the Campaign for Clean Air in London, we're confident that the European Commission will take robust, early enforcement action against the UK for three reasons. First, without it, the EU's broader air pollution strategy, including its post-Kyoto climate change negotiations, will be a laughing stock. Second, with the new AQ Directive being a hard-fought compromise between those who wanted to achieve all the WHO's standards for air quality, and those who wanted delay, it would be unthinkable for the European Commission to fall at its first enforcement hurdle. Finally, the UK (and London in particular) can be singled out for the scale of its NO2 breaches.

The Government has admitted that road transport is the cause of all breaches of air quality laws in the UK. So we need to target the most polluted areas with technology-based solutions and a "tipping point" of behavioural change. Road pricing is essential, and fair, to tackle congestion and "make polluters pay", since vehicles produce less than half as much air pollution once their speed reaches 30kph. It should operate seven days per week. We also need more ambitious Low Emission Zones (LEZs).

There are clear economic, social and environmental reasons for improving the UK's air quality quickly. Despite this, the Government has shown itself incapable of taking any firm action on anything, unless it involves "give-aways". It has listened to the same siren voices that argued against the creation and enforcement of the Clean Air Act introduced in 1956.

We need a new approach urgently, one that will give stakeholders of all types the certainty and time necessary to play their full part in delivering the required changes in the most cost-effective manner. Failing that, we shall have to urge the European Commission to take robust action to defend WHO-based air quality laws.

Simon Birkett is the Principal Contact for the Campaign for Clean Air in London

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