Government’s ‘world leading’ air pollution strategy is ‘missed opportunity’, say campaigners

Plan promises strict measures for wood-burning stoves and farming emissions, but fails to address harmful gases produced by road traffic

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Monday 14 January 2019 00:57
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Theresa May responds to high court ruling that air pollution plan is 'unlawful'

Government plans to tackle toxic air pollution have been described by green campaigners as a “missed opportunity” to tackle the problem of traffic emissions.

Lauded by ministers as a strategy that places the UK above the rest of the world in the fight for cleaner air, the strategy does not address the car fumes that have repeatedly landed the government in court.

Despite this omission, the plan does float severe crackdowns on wood-burning stoves and pollution from farms to cut harmful particulates and ammonia gas from the air.

Air pollution is one of the nation’s biggest public health threats, and has been linked to everything from breathing difficulties to dementia.

The new targets, which were published in draft form for consultation last May, are intended to cut billions from the economic losses arising every year as a result of costs to the NHS and sick days triggered by filthy air.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said tackling emissions from car exhausts was “only one part of the story”, emphasising the focus on all forms of air pollution.

Under the new plans, the most polluting wood burners and coal for open fires will be banned, and farming reforms will be introduced to cut huge quantities of ammonia the industry pumps out.

“Our ambitious strategy includes new targets, new powers for local government and confirms that our forthcoming environment bill will include new primary legislation on air quality,” said Mr Gove.

Professor Alastair Lewis, an atmospheric chemist at the University of York, welcomed the proposals to cut domestic and agricultural emissions, which he said had “quietly been increasing in recent years”.

However, Simon Alcock, head of public affairs for environment law firm ClientEarth, condemned the strategy’s failure to address traffic pollution.

“It instead claims that it is being dealt with by other plans,” he said.

“What it doesn’t say is that those plans are in total disarray, so once again the government has missed a golden opportunity to clean up illegal levels of air pollution.”

ClientEarth has successfully taken the government to court three times over its inadequate action to curb illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide which pervade many British cities, mostly from vehicles.

Campaigners said Mr Gove and his department could not wait for Chris Grayling’s Department for Transport to clean up Britain’s roads.

They urged the government to bring forward a switch to electric cars and the ban on the sale of high-polluting vehicles.

“A 2040 phase-out date for diesel and petrol is effectively saying that yes, your grandchildren deserve clean air, but your children will just have to go on breathing toxic fumes so as not to disrupt the car industry’s sales forecasts,” said Greenpeace clean air campaigner Morten Thaysen.

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However, a commitment in the new strategy to halving the number of people living in areas with dangerous levels of particulate pollution by 2025 makes the UK the first major economy to set goals based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

The government said such targets go far beyond those set for EU member states.

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the UK’s new strategy set “an example for the rest of the world to follow”.

But green groups, who have been closely scrutinising the UK’s environmental plans for a post-Brexit future, said the promises laid out by Mr Gove would only be worth anything if the timeframes are ambitious and they are enshrined in law.

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