The biggest challenges to air quality and pollution policies in the UK

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Air pollution costs the UK £20 billion every year. But this just one of many problems for air quality policies in the country. Poor air quality causes approximately 34,000 deaths in the UK annually and there are many sources of pollution the government aims to address.

Following power plants and refineries, road pollution is one of the largest contributors to poor air quality. According to figures provided by Friends of the Earth, 2,091 schools, nurseries and further education centres are situated within 150 metres of a road with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, released by diesel. Thus, leaving thousands of children and young people exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. While 40µg/m3 is the legal limit in Europe, it is recognised there is typically no “safe” level of exposure to diesel fumes, and there are areas that exceed this limit across the UK. The highest level recorded was 118.19µg/m3 in East London.

There are currently no plans to rehouse or remove citizens from certain areas, the focus is solely on reducing levels of pollutants in these areas by implementing clean air zones (CAZ).

Photo: British Steel

In 2015, the government revealed plans to improve air quality in cities, with the introduction of five clean air zones to be operational by 2020. Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby are the first cities to be affected. The zones form an aspect of the Clean Air Strategy (CAS). It was initially proposed to apply to buses, taxis, and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) but, following legal challenges, it was widened to include non-compliant private vehicles. Charges for driving into cities like London have also been introduced, to encourage people to use public transport.

Professor John Bryson, Enterprise and Economic Geography at The University of Birmingham. Photo: University of Birmingham

However, Professor John Bryson, Enterprise and Economic Geography at The University of Birmingham, told Eat News, “A city’s air pollution has many different sources and some of these are outside the city. The implication being that a clean air zone policy will not deal with background air pollution – that which comes from outside the city or the CAZ. Background air pollutants come from, for example, agriculture, other settlements that are upwind and the national road network.”

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An example of this is the UK land bridge between Ireland and the rest of Europe. Journeys via sea take approximately 40 hours, but the land bridge cuts this time down to less than 20. Professor Bryson continued, “The land bridge identifies a source of air pollution that is linked to Irish-EU single market trade and this is traffic that just passes through England.  Understanding background sources of air pollutants is critical for any attempt to develop solutions. It is time to take air pollution and climate change seriously. Any disruptions linked to UK/EU trade negotiations, Brexit fallout or COVID-19 are nothing to the disruptions – economic, social, cultural and political – that will come with climate change impacts.”

Yearly, more than 150,000 trucks transport over 3 million tonnes of freight to and from Ireland. Irish trucks use British motorways to reach Europe, meaning that the air pollution in England is greatly increased by Irish freight.

However, a no-deal Brexit would likely eliminate this source of pollution for England, and it could also mean the end of the UK fuel refinery business. There are six petroleum refineries in the UK, contributing £3.5 billion to the GDP and supporting over 20,000 jobs. Under current government plans for no deal, they face danger from cheaper imports, and tariffs for exports to the EU.

Agriculture is another major problem for air quality. The supply and demand of meats, dairy and poultry in the UK could be one of the biggest pitfalls to the clean air policies. Agriculture is responsible for 88% of UK emissions of ammonia gas, which can travel long distances and combine with other pollutants to form fine PM2.5 pollution. Confining many animals in close quarters concentrates the air emissions generated by farm animals. Cattle emit methane, poultry farms release high levels of ammonia and animal waste from all livestock contains hydrogen sulphide. Farming Minister, George Eustice, said, “Ammonia emissions can have a significant impact on the environment and on our health, and as custodians of the land, farmers have an important role to play in reducing them.” Plans under the CAS propose to equip farmers with tools to invest in infrastructure, to reduce these emissions by using holistic farming techniques.

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A further 38% of the UK’s PM2.5 emissions come from domestic burning, including that of stoves and open fires. CO, NO2 and PM2.5 come from boilers, heaters, and ovens, which burn carbon containing fuels. Oil and coal heating will also be phased out over time. Pollution can come from chemicals in paint, carpets, upholstery, and cleaning and fragrance products in the form of non-methane volatile organic compounds. Environmental tobacco smoke is also one household pollutant that the government is addressing. Public Health England has stated it, “Wants to see a tobacco-free generation by 2025.” Yet over 90,000 people still smoke in the UK. Measures to cut this out under the tobacco control plan include making tobacco more expensive, preventing promotion of tobacco, and heavier regulation.

The CAS put forward that consumer industries and health organizations should work together with the government to raise awareness of this type of pollution and how to properly ventilate homes to reduce the public’s exposure. Bryson, however, is not convinced this is enough, “The key challenge is that every policy needs to be targeted to reduce environmental pollution. Thus, an air quality policy as a stand-alone policy will be ineffective. The policy inventions need to cut across all policy domains. In some contexts, there are two other challenges – measurement and enforcement, and these are linked.”

Reports from Clean Air Fund indicate the UK could benefit from a £1.6 billion annual boom by tackling air pollution. Analysis from CBI Economics revealed that 3 million working days per annum could be prevented, increasing individual earnings by £900 million in total overall. Meaning that properly enforcing clean air policies could make us both healthier, and wealthier.

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Emily Lowes is an Eat News correspondent in the UK who has experience writing social, political, and economic features for a range of news outlets. She is an avid communicator, activist, and advocate for the freedom of information.

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Eat News is a Taiwanese digital media, analyzes current events and issues through column articles, videos, visual aid, and exclusive interviews.

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