Ambitious plans from the government to clean up the air we breathe will work only if coupled with effective and properly funded local authority powers, according to experts.
The Clean Air Strategy aims to cut the costs of air pollution to society by £1.7bn each year by 2020, rising to £5.3bn a year from 2030.
Air pollution in the UK currently contributes to 40,000 early deaths a year, according to a report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
The strategy focuses on the five most damaging air pollutants: ammonia, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and non-methane volatile organic compounds.
It will set a long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified as the most damaging.
The government has said it will publish further evidence early this year on what action it will need to take to meet this target. Primary legislation on air quality will be included in the forthcoming Environment Bill.
This target is in addition to a pledge to halve the number of people living in areas where particulate matter pollution breaches WHO guidelines by 2025.
CIEH welcomed the strategy but was ‘disappointed’ that the government has opted for air quality targets rather than legally binding limits to protect public health.
Policy manager Tamara Sandoul said: ‘We welcome the announcement of new powers for local authorities to tackle air pollution in their areas. However, this needs to be coupled with adequate funding. We will need to wait and see what the extent of new local authority powers will be, once the Environment Bill is published.’
Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, outlined the sorts of powers local authorities would need. He said: ‘Councils also need local powers to further tackle air pollution, particularly with regard to moving traffic offences, government support on planning and transport matters, and robust national action to help the country transition to low-emission vehicles and power generation.’
But he added: ‘If the government’s air quality plans and any new local powers are to be successful, they need to be underpinned by local flexibility and sufficient funding.’
Iq Mead, lecturer in emissions technology at Cranfield University, said that more detail was needed on the action that was going to be taken was needed, particularly in urban areas where air pollution is most problematic.
Mead has advised that a ‘joined-up cross-sectoral approach that harnesses the latest clean technology’ is needed.
He said: ‘Sectors such as transport including aviation, the energy industry and agriculture, need ambitious action plans that allow them to continue to grow while also reducing their level of pollutants.’
Air pollution is one of the biggest threats to public health in the UK, behind cancer, obesity and heart disease
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: ‘Air pollution kills 7 million people globally every year, making it one of the largest and most urgent threats to global health of our time.
‘I applaud the UK’s Clean Air Strategy, which will not only help to protect the health of millions of people, but is also an example for the rest of the world to follow.’
The strategy also plans to tackle the pollution caused by stoves and open fires by legislating to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels; ensuring only the cleanest stoves will be available for sale by 2022; exploring how to increase local authorities powers to boost the rate of upgrades of inefficient and polluting heating appliances; bring existing smoke control legislation up to date, and make it easier to enforce.
Action around pollution caused by agriculture, responsible for 88% of ammonia emissions, is also being taken. This includes supporting farmers to invest in less polluting infrastructure and equipment, new regulations to require low emission farming techniques, and regulations to reduce pollution from fertilisers.
* This image is from business waste recycling firm First Mile and shows what London could look like if initiatives to help tackle air pollution are not taken seriously. This April central London will be introducing an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to help tackle air pollution.