This post is by Jenny Hawley, senior policy officer at Plantlife.
Debate around the government’s Clean Air Strategy has been focused on whether it will cut the roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution from city traffic. But it is also supposed to take a long overdue look at other air quality issues.
Since the last Air Quality Strategy in 2007, new evidence has come to light on two important issues: ammonia emissions from farming and the impacts of excess nitrogen on the environment. Previously identified as “potential objectives to be kept under review”, ammonia emissions are now rising and over 96 per cent of sensitive wildlife habitats in England already have excess nitrogen, disrupting the fragile balance of their ecosystems. So the time has come for action; but how effective will the new strategy be in tackling these problems?
Progress on cutting toxic ammonia emissions has been slow
Ammonia is one of the main contributors to the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) damaging people’s health. It is also partly converted to nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. At high concentrations, ammonia is toxic to nearby wildlife, bleaching vegetation and killing off lichens.
Progress in cutting ammonia emissions has been slow, just ten per cent from 1980 to 2016, compared to a 70 per cent cut in NOx emissions over the same period. The UK is likely to miss national, EU and UN targets. In fact, ammonia emissions increased by ten per cent between 2008 and 2016.
For too long, the ‘polluter pays’ principle has been disregarded in relation to ammonia from farming; the main sources – dairy and beef cattle and fertiliser application – are entirely unregulated. Only the largest pig and poultry units need a permit, creating an uneven playing field for industry. Cross compliance rules on water pollution help to control ammonia emissions from fertilisers, but even these are at risk when Basic Farm Payments are withdrawn post-Brexit.
To tackle ammonia emissions quickly and effectively, robust new baseline regulation is needed and the Clean Air Strategy has set out three options: limits on fertiliser use, permitting of large dairy farms and requirements to use specific practices. All of these are needed and more, including permitting of smaller chicken units and intensive beef farms, and new resources to ensure compliance.
Even protected sites are damaged by excess nitrogen
Ammonia and NOx emissions from farming and fossil fuels have doubled nitrogen levels in the atmosphere in the last century, altering the global nitrogen cycle. Deposited from the air and in rain – nearby or over long distances – excess nitrogen enriches and acidifies ecosystems, from meadows, rivers and oceans to the tops of mountains.
Plantlife has raised the alarm that there has been a 20 per cent drop in plant diversity on our road verges since 1990. NOx emissions from traffic are ‘junk food’ for nitrogen-loving plants such as nettles, brambles and cow parsley which crowd out more sensitive plants, lichens and fungi. Road verges are the last refuge of endangered wildflowers such as fen ragwort and wood calamint, and are vital for other wildlife. Even wildlife sites with the highest protection are affected; 95 per cent of European Special Areas of Conservation, are being damaged by excess nitrogen.
Although the government has statutory duties under national and EU legislation to stop exceedances of ‘critical loads’ and ‘critical levels’ for nitrogen, and to restore protected sites, the Clean Air Strategy falls short, committing only to continue monitoring and to new planning guidance. There is no clear action to support Natural England’s Shared Nitrogen Action Plans and Site Improvement Plans to work with local stakeholders (including polluters) and no mention of incorporating nitrogen impacts into condition assessments and management plans for Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Post-Brexit, the strategy proposes to use the new farm payment scheme to protect affected habitats; but, for this to be effective, the ‘polluter pays’ principle must apply, so that precious public funds are not simply used to pay farm businesses to obey the law.
Another problem is that government agencies and local authorities are central to delivering the strategy but, as with urban pollution, they lack the tools and resources to do so. Many local authorities no longer employ an ecologist and planning officers need more support.
New legislation and accountability post-Brexit
The strategy outlines clear ambitions to make the UK a world leader in air quality, enhance EU standards in domestic legislation post-Brexit, tackle emissions from aviation and shipping and build international collaboration. These are all fine and they create an opportunity to set UK air pollution targets based on the needs of public health and a healthy environment, beyond EU and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) requirements.
But, until ambitions, environmental principles and targets are enshrined in law, and the UK has a green watchdog with teeth, air quality will remain ‘high risk’ on Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker and people and nature in the UK will not be protected from poor air quality.