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Finding solutions to the UK’s air pollution problem

Representatives in government and the transport, and health industries meet to tackle an issue that affects everyone

By Prospect Team  

From the school strikes to Extinction Rebellion, 2019 saw a new wave of climate activism sweep the globe. Though it is just a part of the puzzle, air pollution has been linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths in Britain. How might we begin to tackle the problem? Representatives from the government, as well as the environmental, transport, and health sectors gathered in Prospect’s Westminster offices for a lunchtime roundtable on tackling air pollution and growing the green economy.

The session began with opening remarks by Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrat Lords Transport Spokesperson. “It’s good to see a wide range of interests represented here,” she noted, observing the tendency of industries to silo themselves in their own niches. Randerson opened with a flash of optimism. There’s rising awareness of the need for leadership on air pollution compared to the inaction common merely three years ago, she observed: “when I raised an issue, I was told the market would sort it out. The market doesn’t sort it out on its own, it needs help.”

Geraint Davies MP, member of the Environmental Audit Committee, stressed “we’ve got a window of opportunity coming up with the Environmental Bill” and recommended adding World Health Organisation standards for air quality to the legislation. After Brexit, Davies followed, Britain must be proactive about being the forefront for green innovation. “If the fiscal policy is in place to incentivise innovation than we’ll get there.”

The government must play a crucial part in Britain’s green transition. Claire Haigh, Chief Executive at Greener Journeys, said that while the government’s recent £5bn pledge to support bus services was a start, there’s further work to be done on road pricing and parking levies to incentivise the use of public transport: “These are the big policy levers that the government needs to pull.” Katy Taylor, Group Commercial and Customer Director at Go Ahead Group, affirmed the importance of local councils to Britain’s green transition. Representing the largest provider of electric buses in the UK, Taylor noted that to transition Britain’s fleets away from diesel to electric, “we do need local authorities to come to the table. We don’t need massive legislative sticks, most local authorities have the legislative powers they require.” Lucy Hayward-Speight, Delivery Planning Manager, Air Quality & Environment, at Transport for London has worked on the ultra-low emissions zones in the capital. “We’ve had an awful lot of continual public support for the scheme.”

Though are trade-offs, Hayward-Speight notes: “it does impact some people more than others,” so they have instituted special policies for those more acutely affected. One of the recurring challenges that came up in the roundtable was the need to both push for legislation that incentivised green transitions, while also avoiding exacerbating economic inequality. Tim Anderson, UK Head of Transport at the Energy Saving Trust, contended that electric vehicles are currently largely only affordable for those on middle-incomes, but “not those most affected by air quality… Not every organisation has deep pockets and can go the electric route.”

Derek Thomas MP, member of the Environmental Audit Committee, also asked when electric cars would be more available and easier to buy, noting “there is a massive journey between where we are today to making it affordable.” Chris Large, Senior Partner at Global Action Plan, also pointed to the supply and demand chain. Transport groups that have signed up to lower emissions agreements, he noted, “just cannot get their hands on [electric] vans.” “There’s a huge supply problem… We need to make sure the car companies swap from selling diesels to selling electrics.”

Another impediment to the mainstreaming of the electric car is the lack of current grid capacity: “We need an increase in the electricity supply” said Randerson. For Daniel Brown, Policy Manager at the Association for Renewable Energy & Clean Technology, there’s an impending move from “an energy system governed by large power stations to [one marked by] hundreds and thousands of points of active, variable demand.”

While the electric car might be a start, said Dominic Phinn at Client Earth, “Getting people to move from a polluting car to a less polluting car is not a long-term solution. We have to think creatively” and cited ideas including mobility credits, car clubs, greater cycling schemes, and further taxation schemes for company car fleets. Roger Barrowcliffe, Vice Chair of IAQM, used his experience as an air quality consultant to stretch the debate beyond transport. “There is good news,” he offered, “if you analyse roadside air quality, you will see concentrations [in nitrogen monoxide] have been falling.” But there are rising issues with other particles, and the pollution associated with domestic wood burning, ammonia, and indoor air pollution. “It’ll be important to have health experts tell us what particles are more dangerous and would contribute to mortality.”

Another health industry voice came as Zak Bond, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the British Lung Foundation, said that while there’s rising awareness of risk pollution brings to premature mortality, “people know less about the massive mobility issue: if you have asthma, everyday living in a town or city can be stressful. You can end up in hospital.” Elizabeth Fonseca, Senior Manager at Air Quality for the Environmental Defense Fund Europe, also looked outside of transport and honed in on curbing building emissions: “when we go back to buildings, all the things within the council’s remit, there are so many restrictions in the way buildings look that’s restricting our ability to put in the efficiency savings into buildings and tackling building emissions.”

Finally, Julieta Cuneo, Sustainability Advisor for Barry Sherman MP, echoed the need for different sectors to tackle the problem together. The fragmentation of industries “is a problem we come into all the time, because obviously we have to talk to people in transport, and then people dealing with health, and then people dealing with procurement. And they don’t necessarily talk to each other.” There’s a need to “build those bridges. It’s challenging but an exciting opportunity to do it.”

For the UK, the clock is ticking, even more so due to global United Nations Climate Change Conference set to be held in Glasgow this November. “There’s an opportunity to show leadership across” observes Davies. From the spirited collaboration and energy in the room, it seems many would agree.

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