Here are three actions the UK government should take to clean up Britain’s air

A photograph of... where... where is that? Image: Getty.

Last week’s joint report from the environment, health, transport and  environmental audit parliamentary select committees calling for serious action on toxic air pollution is extremely rare. Four committees, two chaired by Conservatives and two by Labour, and made up of 49 MPs from five different political parties, have come together to call on the government to stop putting public health at risk and provide leadership to tackle what they call a ‘national health emergency’ in the form of air pollution.

This unprecedented step is both right and necessary. As the report highlights, air pollution kills approximately 40,000 people in the UK a year and costs our economy in the region of £20bn. Those at greatest risk of this threat include the elderly, children and those with existing medical conditions. Yet despite the severity of the impacts of air pollution the government’s response has been found severely wanting.

The government has now lost three court cases for failing to provide a plan deemed sufficient to tackle Britain’s toxic air. The UK is failing to comply with EU law that sets out limits for air pollution, and few countries perform as poorly as the UK in terms of the number of areas that are non-compliant. Without major policy changes, most of the UK will remain in breach of legal limits for air pollution into 2025 and beyond.

As the select committee report highlights, one of the primary causes of air pollution (nitrogen dioxide emissions, or NO2) is road transport, and the main source (over three quarters) is diesel vehicles. This increase in diesel-related emissions has been driven largely by the growth in their use: they now make up 36 per cent of the UK’s car fleet (10.7m vehicles), up from 7 per cent (1.6m) in the 1990s. It stems, too, from the failure of diesel engines to deliver the expected reductions in emissions under real world driving conditions compared to test conditions.

Yet the government’s target of phasing out the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 is startlingly unambitious. After all, India has pledged to do it a decade earlier, in 2030, while Norway has set a target of selling only zero-emission vehicles by 2025.

As a bare minimum, any proposals that the government brings forward later this year should include all necessary policy interventions to bring the UK back into compliance with EU and UK law on pollution levels in the shortest possible timeframe. However, the reality is that the scale of the UK’s air pollution problem demands a much bolder response from government. Consequently, IPPR has made the case for an integrated strategy across three key areas of policy.

First, the government should use legislation, regulation and road pricing to progressively phase out diesel cars across the UK, in order to clean the air and speed up the shift to cleaner vehicles and alternative forms of transport. This means an explicit pledge to phase out the use of diesel cars in all major urban areas by 2025, and to ban them completely thereafter as part of a new Clean Air Act.


The ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, currently proposed for 2040, should be brought forward to 2030. Moreover, the government should also mandate the creation of a network of clean air zones covering all major urban areas in the UK, which, crucially, should enable local authorities to charge the drivers of dirty vehicles.

Second, the government should use its industrial strategy to invest in the research, design and commercialisation of new clean vehicles – including an increasing research and development spend, and tax reductions for industry – and provide a financial incentive for consumers to buy them through a smart scrappage scheme, in order to increase supply of green vehicles while reducing the cost of them.

Third, the government should focus on encouraging what is called ‘smart mobility’. At the moment, much attention goes into investing in public transport and the infrastructure needed to create a favourable climate for more efficient travel – including encouraging walking and cycling– in the UK’s cities. This must continue.

But these efforts should be complemented by the expansion of car clubs, journey planners and other applications of digital technology that encourage shared and efficient travel. A scrappage scheme could provide discounts or credits for these schemes, relieving people of expensive private car use altogether. Developing a full array of alternatives to private car use is key because around half of particulate matter air pollution from road transport – the tiny pieces of dirt that can get into our blood stream – comes from braking, tyre wear and tear, and dust on the road, all of which will not disappear with more electric vehicles. Vehicle miles need to be reduced, alongside diesel engines. 

Furthermore, while attention has been focused, quite rightly, on the illegal and lethal levels of NO2 emissions that arise from road transport, we should not forget other contributors to air pollution. This is why IPPR is currently examining the evidence on pollution from other sources such as wood stoves, coal fires and smokeless fuel. While the pathogenic pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10) to which these sources contribute remain within legal limits, of the 40,000 annual premature deaths from air pollution, 29,000 are attributable to these types of particulates. 

In this respect, Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity – to decide what kind of legal limits to set on an all types of air pollutants. The government must seize this opportunity to not only tackle this public health emergency head-on but to become a global leader determined to reduce air pollution and to mark out itself out as a frontrunner in the transition to a low carbon, greener and cleaner economy.

Luke Murphy is the Associate Director for the Environment, Housing and Infrastructure Team at IPPR. He tweets at @lukesmurphy.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.