Notwithstanding the significant difficulties faced by this country as a result of Brexit, it does present an opportunity to introduce more ambitious limits and policies on air pollution.
This country should aspire to be a global leader on yet another environmental issue, and strive to become the country with the cleanest air in urban areas in the developed world.
The UK Government should adopt the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline limits for concentrations for all health-harming air pollutants as soon as possible and after a feasibility study. These WHO limits are more ambitious than our current EU-derived legal limits. The WHO provide guideline limits for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), coarse particulate matter (PM10), ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Already, DEFRA have recently undertaken modelling that suggested WHO’s guideline limit for PM2.5 was “technically feasible”.
To ensure that any future limits and targets on air pollutants remain world-leading, a “green watchdog”, Office for Environmental Protection, or even a new Committee for Air Quality should be given the responsibility to recommend new limits and targets to parliament following appropriate feasibility studies. This would ensure they are independently recommended, and scrutinised in parliament, prior to being adopted by the government. This would mirror the role of the influential and independent Committee for Climate Change in recommending the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions targets.
More ambitious limits on the concentration of different air pollutants are welcome, but the most important issue is achieving compliance with them. We need the right incentives, investment and accountability to make that happen.
Local authorities are obliged to monitor, review and, if appropriate, take action in relation to the air pollution within their boundaries. But local authorities do not have a clear legal responsibility to reduce air pollution below legal limits. They should have this obligation for the geographic areas they are responsible for.
Other relevant public authorities also need a new legal duty placed on them to contribute to achieving compliance with air pollutant limits in geographic areas they have responsibility for. This is because some public bodies control sources of air pollution that local authorities do not have responsibility over. For example, Highways England maintains large stretches of major roads in England that are in breach of legal NO2 limits, but has no legal responsibility to bring these illegal levels of NO2 down into compliance with legal limits.
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