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MPs say government more interested in ‘box-ticking’ than real climate change action

Words: Laura Edgar
Exhaust fumes worsening air quality / iStock-626783640

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Environment Audit; Health and Social Care; and Transport Committees have said the government is ‘more concerned with box-ticking’ than taking ‘bold, meaningful action’ when it comes to tackling the UK’s air quality.

The four committees launched an inquiry into the government’s plans to improve air pollution owing to concerns they were “inadequate”, particularly since there had been three successful legal challenges against them.

The most recent was in February 2018 (external page) when a High Court judge ruled that the government’s current policy was “unlawful”.

Improving Air Quality concludes that despite these legal challenges, the government has not produced a plan that adequately addresses the size of the challenge, and neither has it demonstrated the national leadership needed to make a change in how air quality is tackled.

The select committees find it “unacceptable” that successive governments have failed to protect the public from poisonous air. Neil Parish, chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said the committees are “concerned that the government is treating air quality as a box-ticking exercise” when it should be taking “bold, meaningful action”.

“We believe the government should move from this narrow focus on technical infringements towards a long-term holistic strategy which prioritises environmental and health benefits,” says the report.

The government published its plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations and improve air quality in July 2017. It gave local authorities a leading role in the plans.

Improving Air Quality recommends that the Joint Air Quality Unit should develop a centralised support programme available to all local authorities to address current and prevent future air pollution problems.

“Plans for the support programme should be developed with the aim of making a service available nationally by January 2019. We would be grateful for written confirmation of the establishment of this service,” adds the report.

Further to this, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT) must work closely with local authorities to ensure that those introducing Clean Air Zones “receive the support they need to implement complementary measures which encourage car drivers to switch to public transport, active travel or electric vehicles”.

The committees also suggest that the date by which manufacturers must end the sale of petrol and diesel cars should be brought forward from 2040.

Climate change schemes, urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives should be aligned with air quality goals to prevent government policy from working at cross-purposes.

Legislative proposals on clean air that “unify and update existing laws” should be brought forward by the government in a new Clean Air Act.

According to the report: “The government must set out its regulatory course, including whether to adopt World Health Organization air quality guidelines for all air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and ozone, and not just nitrogen dioxide. This legislation should aim to achieve the widest possible health benefits by adopting World Health Organization targets into UK statute.”

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “Ministers have failed to address the polluted air in our choking cities. We need a new Clean Air Act to ensure the government remains accountable for failures to achieve air quality commitments after the UK leaves the EU. The government must ensure that after Brexit our air quality standards are as good as or better than the level we enjoy as a result of our membership of the EU.”

Lilian Greenwood MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee, said: “Transport is the key to improving air quality, but it requires real political leadership and coordinated action from the government and local authorities. The solution isn't just about reducing the pollution each vehicle produces, we also need policies that will reduce our reliance on cars. This requires more urgency, imagination and innovation than is being demonstrated by the government, local councils or transport service providers."

The full report can be found here on the UK Parliament website.

Image credit | iStock