Improving air quality: what’s the plan?

Claire Haigh
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DEFRA is due this month to publish its new Air Quality Plan. Government has already lost two court cases on this issue, so the pressure is on.

Concern over air quality is no longer just the preserve of environmental groups and it is widely recognized that we are facing a public health emergency.  With air pollution causing 44,000 early deaths a year, the issue has attracted the attention of mainstream media, business, policy makers and the public at large.

Road transport is a major cause of the deteriorating air quality in our major cities, and rising sales of diesel cars are a big factor.  Diesel cars already contribute 40% to pollution.  And DfT tests of diesel cars last year found that almost all Britain’s most popular diesel cars exceeded limits for safe levels of pollution during on-road driving, with toxic NOx emissions up to 14 times higher than claimed.  Yet sales of diesel cars continue to rise with 244,000 more sold in March, a 1.6% increase on last year.

The cost in health and human terms is huge. The Royal College of Physicians have linked air pollution to cancer, asthma, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia.  They have also estimated the cost of these health impacts to be £20 billion every year, and these impacts fall most heavily on the poorest.

The imperative to tackle poor air quality isn’t just a health issue, it is also a moral issue. Research by the University of Surrey shows that drivers commuting in diesel cars produce six times as much pollution as the average bus passenger, yet bus passengers suffer far more from pollution in our cities than those travelling in cars.  This is a clear violation of the core principle of environmental justice.  Those who contribute the most to air pollution in our cities are least likely to suffer.

The onus must be put on the polluters.  Unfortunately policy so far has failed to address these fundamental equity and social justice issues, and has crucially stopped short of tackling one of the biggest root causes of air pollution: increasing use of private diesel cars.  Moreover DEFRA’s exclusive focus so far on emissions per vehicle rather than emissions per passenger presents a distorted picture and provides insufficient foundation for effective policy interventions.

Any solution for poor air quality in our major cities must also tackle congestion.  Pollution is greatly exacerbated by congestion: emissions from vehicles increase by at least fourfold when they are stuck in traffic.  It follows that reducing private car use through modal switch to public transport, cycling and walking is essential.

Measures to encourage modal switch from car to bus can be transformative.  Research for Greener Journeys by Professor Peter White shows that bus priority measures can deliver 75% fewer emissions per bus passenger km than for car passengers.

Buses need to be recognized as an integral part of the solution.  Like all other parts of the transport network, the bus sector is under pressure to tackle the harmful emissions arising from its older diesel vehicles.  However, attention given by the media to these older buses can obscure the fact that modern diesel buses are a major success story.  Real world testing of the latest Euro VI diesel engines demonstrates a 95% reduction in NOx emissions compared with their older Euro V counterparts.

The rigorous testing regime for bus manufacturing means that an equivalent of the Volkswagen emissions testing scandal would be inconceivable in the bus sector. The car emissions scandals by contrast mean that the public at large have lost faith in manufacturers’ own claims.  The Mayor of London will launch independent monitoring of vehicle emissions later this year.

Much more needs to be done to tackle diesel cars.  The EFRA Select Committee, the Mayor of London, and many other leading voices have been calling for a national diesel scrappage scheme.  And research just published by Friends of the Earth shows that almost half of Britons back restrictions on polluting cars, with only 18% opposed. Perhaps with the increasing weight of evidence the pendulum will begin to swing, but with fuel duty now frozen for seven years running, it may take a lot to convince Government to take on the car lobby.

However, eventually the onus must be put on the polluters. We need evidence based research rather than policy based on political expediency, and we need a better understanding of the wider impacts of policies. Next month Greener Journeys will publish a new report by Professor David Begg which highlights the consequences of government policy. This research will examine the impact clean air zones will have on bus sector finances, and wider social and economic impacts.

We hope that DEFRA’s much anticipated new Air Quality Plan will tackle head on the issue of diesel cars, either via national scrappage scheme or restrictive measures. Government would also achieve maximum benefit quickly and cost effectively by providing support for bringing the rest of the bus fleet up to the Euro VI standard, through retrofit where feasible, and by encouraging modal switch from car to public transport, walking and cycling.

We all bear some responsibility for reducing air pollution; real change will only occur when everyone accepts this responsibility and makes a concerted effort. We need to act urgently to protect the health, well-being and sustainability of today’s communities and future generations.

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