A breath of fresh air: the five things we should do to cut air pollution

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The right of UK citizens to breathe clean air is routinely violated. In 2018, air pollution in London exceeded the legal limit for the entire year before the end of January. Across the country, toxic air is linked to 40,000 premature deaths each year. And this is not a recent phenomenon. The air in London and most urban areas in the UK has been illegally polluted since 2010.

Today’s Clean Air Day is therefore an expression of ambition more than a celebration. We desperately need innovative and ambitious ways to make our air safe to breathe.

We’ve been doing some thinking. Below are our five recommendations for how the UK can clean up its act.

1.  Bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2030
The UK plans to ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040. This falls well short of the government’s ambition to show global leadership. Norway is due to ban conventional cars from 2025 and India will do the same five years later. The 2040 target also represents a missed opportunity to tackle air pollution earlier. Our analysis suggests that bringing forward the ban by ten years to 2030 would cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 40 per cent by 2025. The average UK vehicle is scrapped after approximately 14 years, so a 2040 ban on fossil-fuelled vehicles would permit widespread air pollution into the mid-2050s. The recent proposal to water down the 2040 target from a ‘ban’ to a ‘mission’ is disappointing. This target needs to be made stronger, not weaker.

There is already evidence that bans on polluting vehicles have a significant impact. When Paris banned fossil-fuelled vehicles for a day, air pollution fell by 40 per cent.

2.  More Clean Air Zones across the UK
City-level policies are significant drivers of change. Defra’s own analysis demonstrates that the introduction of Clean Air Zones, alongside investment in adequate charging infrastructure for low emissions vehicles, are essential for cleaner air and accelerating the transition to a low emission economy. It is clear that clean air and clean industry go hand-in-hand, so Birmingham City Council’s announcement that it is running a consultation on introducing a Clean Air Zone is great news.

3.  Swap from diesel to electric vans
This is a big opportunity in the short term. A van emits about five times as much NOx and more than three times as much fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as a car. Delivery firm UPS has already made over a third of its London vans electric and has plans to upgrade the entire fleet once it has implemented a new ‘intelligent’ approach to charging. There is no reason why it should take until 2030 to implement this upgrade. Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change reports that, by 2025, electric vans will offer emissions reductions for negative cost.

4.  Use post-CAP agriculture policy to cut fertiliser emissions
Leaving the EU presents us with an opportunity to improve agriculture policy. In the context of air pollution, this means reducing ammonia emissions from the agriculture sector. Ammonia emissions have been on the rise since 2013, following a steady decline from 1997, and there was a 3.2 per cent increase between 2015 and 2016. This is largely due to the use of urea fertilisers. Under the Gothenburg Protocol, which sets emissions ceilings, the UK is required to reduce its ammonia emissions by eight per cent by 2020.

Spreading fertiliser across fields in Europe is associated with seasonal peaks in ammonia concentrations in the UK. For example, 19 per cent of the ammonia detected in our air here in the UK originates in France. Proposed reforms to the CAP are set to grant member states much greater flexibility in distributing subsidies to farmers. This is an opportunity for the UK to work with the EU to ensure this money is used to support better fertiliser use on the continent.

5.  Work with the EU to reduce transboundary air pollution from coal
Beyond ammonia emissions, we need to work with the EU to tackle a whole host of other transboundary pollutants. For example, only 50-55 per cent of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the UK is emitted from domestic sources.

One such pollutant is sulphur dioxide, which is predominately produced by burning fossil fuels like coal. Having launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance at COP23 in November 2017, the UK is in the process of phasing out coal power, with a world-leading target to end unabated coal-fired power generation by 2025. We should continue to work with Germany and other European nations to increase trade in clean energy and phase out coal on the continent.

2 comments

  • Personally, I’d remove the rights of taxis and minicabs to drive in bus lanes across the country and, instead, allow vehicles in low-emission mode to use them, whether that be EVs or hybrids operating on battery, backed up by emission measuring and charges based on breaches

  • You forgot to mention, the electrification of the railway network and the transfer of freight to rail from road. The North of England, Wales and Scotland, still relies heavily on diesel-powered trains, normally older stock from the South of England. This of course, should have been done in the 1960s, when the rest of Northern Europe was electrifying their railways. Especially, when the UK was, at the time, investing so much in nuclear power, which was supposed to be clean and cheap!

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