England’s current approach to lowering air pollution isn’t working. Here’s how we can fix that.

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As reported in The Times today, air pollution is wreaking havoc on people’s lives and England’s economy.

Too many people are still exposed to the harmful side effects of air pollution, much of which results from activities that should – and can – quickly be replaced by clean alternatives. England needs a new, more comprehensive approach to air quality management – one that enhances the role of real-world data and targets the root causes of the problem.

In response, Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDFE) has drafted an air pollution bill that introduces a more ambitious and targeted approach, while protecting existing standards set by the European Union. Our Bill aims to get the national Government to focus on the actions that can eradicate controllable sources of pollution, particularly where vulnerable communities are exposed. Alternative solutions exist, and now is the time to protect people’s health.

Controllable sources

The current approach to lowering pollution isn’t working – many areas of the UK continue to breach legal limits for safe air quality. Yet much of the problem is caused by sources that can be controlled, such as boilers and stoves, restaurants, construction and especially vehicles, the biggest contributor in cities. As a result, every day millions of people face health threats because of toxic air, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The Government has many powers to address this problem, but does not have a clear responsibility to act. A new approach is needed.

The Government has promised the first Environment Bill in over two decades, which presents a huge opportunity to clean up England’s toxic air and it is vitally important to get this right. The Government must prioritise health outcomes, and strategically reduce and eliminate emissions from controllable sources of pollution as quickly as possible.

EDFE’s approach

Formally referred to as the Air Pollution (Monitoring and Control) Bill, our air pollution Bill contains several elements to put in place a robust process – for current and future governments – to lower air pollution and protect people’s health, including:

  • Information: Develop a transparent register of pollutants, sources and available clean technologies that can replace polluting technologies.
  • Clear targets: Set clear targets based on the register and expert guidance, with an aim to eliminate controllable air pollutants by 2030.
  • Transparency: Establish a more accessible air quality portal that provides clear and open access to local and national air quality data, including forecasts so that appropriate controls can prevent the worst pollution episodes from occurring.
  • Expert advice: Create an independent committee to provide expert advice on pollution and its impact on health.
  • Solutions: Publish a strategy that determines which policies will meet the targets, including how the solutions will improve health, and that complements climate change policies.
  • Accountability: Government must report to Parliament on progress including against agreed health indicators. 

Enhancing air quality data

Informed by our work on air quality monitoring in London, our air pollution Bill would establish a hyperlocal network of air pollution monitors or “pods” across England, with a pod in every postcode. An extensive network would provide more granular data to identify and track pollution hotspots across the country.

The resulting air quality insights could inform targeted solutions, particularly in areas where there are vulnerable populations such as schools and hospitals. The Bill also would provide clearer powers for local governments to assess and implement local measures that protect people’s health, such as temporary restrictions on roads or heavily-polluting energy generators during high pollution episodes. 

Next steps

Our air pollution Bill’s overarching aim is to advance a new framework for action and tackle the root causes of air pollution, most of which can be controlled. Within a decade, we believe the technologies to clean our air should be fully implemented – an ambitious but achievable goal that is in line with England’s climate change commitments to eradicate greenhouse gas pollution by 2050.

We have been working with NGOs, health experts, local authorities and academics to inform our thinking and have received positive feedback. Professor Stephen Holgate, one of the UK’s eminent air quality and health expert, called our approach “comprehensive, wide-ranging and specific.” We are now engaging with Members of Parliament with a view to tabling a Private Members Bill in either House. Ideally, the Government will include the approach we outline in the forthcoming Queens’ speech.

As stated in The Times’  leader column today, Brexit may be dominating our timelines but tackling England’s air quality crisis demands attention now.