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MPs Blast Government Over Air Pollution Failures

Parliamentary Select Committees are rarely kind to Governments. With a remit to scrutinise the Government's record they normally pick policy areas where heals are being dragged rather than shining examples of success. But even against this background accusing the Government of 'putting the health of the nation at risk' is quite strong stuff.

This statement is contained in a new report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), 'Air Quality: A Follow Up Report'. The document is a successor to the EAC's 2010 'Air Quality' report, a wide ranging examination of the previous Government's record on air quality. The new report is shorter and more focused, examining what's changed since the previous report was published and making suggestions for key policy changes.

As with any select committee report the Committee invited submissions of evidence from organisations and individuals, in his case attracting 26 written submissions. They also heard in person from a number of expert witnesses, including yours truly (I appeared before the Committee back in May).

The new report tells us that the health evidence that underpins work to improve air quality has developed significantly in the last 18 months. It quotes 2010 work from the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants stating that ‘air pollution may have made at least some contribution to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people (the number dying of cardiovascular causes) with an average loss of life of about two years’. It also quotes new evidence linking air pollution with the onset of childhood asthma and respirator disorders later in life.

Despite the mounting evidence of air pollution's health impacts the EAC finds the Government's response to be poor, noting that 'we have received no meaningful evidence to suggest that progress towards meeting air quality targets has improved’. They are particularly critical of the low priority air pollution has been given by the Government, and question why the lead department (DEFRA) doesn't even see fit to include air quality in their business plan, concluding that this is ‘symptomatic of its [air quality’s] low priority’.

The Committee have recommended 5 key actions to take. The first of these is the creation of a true cross-departmental air quality strategy led by the Cabinet Office (the body responsible for cross Government policy delivery). The current air quality strategy was released in 2007. It is considered by many to be an impressive exercise in technical analysis, but simply not fit for purpose as it sets out very little in the way of new action. Delivery of the strategy is also felt to be siloed in DEFRA who simply lack access to the policy levers around energy and transport that are controlled by other departments.

I'll explore the other recommendations in future posts, but before leaving the subject it's well worth pointing out one point squirrelled away on page 10 of the report. This essentially asks the Government to give a clear indication of their lobbying intentions as the European Union reviews their air quality legislation. These are the Directives that set those air quality targets that the UK is struggling to meet. This review concludes in 2013 and there are strong suspicions that the UK Government will push for the targets to be weakened during the review process, i.e. rather than take action to meet the targets the UK Government will simply lobby to have the targets changed.

The EAC report states that ‘It [the Government] must say, in its response to this report, whether or not it intends to push for less stringent targets when air quality legislation is reviewed in 2013. Its apparent tactic of avoiding EU fines by applying for extensions to limit value targets, with an expectation that target values will be diluted in the near future, is putting the health of UK residents at risk’.

They key point here is that the Government is required to formally respond to the EAC's report and its recommendations. Whilst they'll no doubt answer in political doublespeak this recommendation puts them in a difficult position. If they indicate that they are not lobbying to have the targets relaxed it then implies that the Government will pull out all of the stops to meet the targets as they stand. But if they say they do want the targets weakened they'll be eviscerated by campaigners who'll accuse them of not caring about those 200,000 people who have their lives shortened every year by polluted air.

The Government response will be due in the first half of 2012. Time then for them to put their cards on the table and say exactly what they're willing to do to clean up our air.


  1. Regarding the lobbying, I have been wondering what to make of these :

    Philip Hammond :

    I will attend the first Transport Council of the Hungarian presidency, which will take place in Brussels on 31 March.
    .......I will be raising two issues under any other business. The first is the importance of ensuring that the forthcoming review of European air quality legislation takes full account of transport issues.

    Theresa Villiers :

    I also discussed the transport aspects of transposition of the air quality directive with Mr Kallas. I pointed out that, although we are fully committed to improving air quality, and we recognise the part that transport has to play, we are keen to ensure that the air quality targets are properly targeted at improvements in health, and are consistent with our ambitious goals to reduce carbon and to create growth.


    The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) was
    asked by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
    to consider the following two questions:

    b. How strong is the evidence base supporting the EC Directive long-term
    limit value for NO2 (40 μg/m3, annual average)? A view on this is
    needed to inform medium to long-term policy development.

  2. With regard to these statements EPUK reported on Ministerial hints back in March

    As for NO2 I can only quote Kings College, London's excellent evidence to the EAC enquiry:

    'The evidence for adverse health impacts of NO2 is less convincing than for PM. NO2 is toxic at high concentrations, but effects at near-ambient levels in exposure chamber studies do not give clear results. Epidemiological studies frequently observe associations with NO2 that are stronger statistically than those with PM. But the lack of biological plausibility at low levels means that these associations are generally attributed to a closely correlated pollutant such as primary PM. The public health benefits of reductions in NO2 levels are potentially quantifiable in the same way as those of PM but this assumes that control of the source of NO2 will also control the underlying toxic pollutant. NOx emissions contribute to secondary PM levels; they also contribute to ozone formation, the effects of which are quantifiable and can be monetised. But the effects of direct impacts of NO2 are not known with confidence,[11] neither is the benefit of achieving the EU limit value for NO2 except insofar as abatement measures impact on PM and ozone. Research on these issues is long overdue.'

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