Here’s everything you need to know about the UK’s latest pollution policy

London in the haze. Image: Getty.

On 22 May, the UK government published a new clean air strategy for consultation. The document sets out plans to tackle emissions from a range of sources, including agriculture, industry and even wood-burning stoves. It all adds up to a subtle but important shift in emphasis, away from simply meeting air quality targets to also reducing wider impacts on health and the environment.

In Britain, much of the debate about air quality has focused on roads and the issue of local roadside hotspots where air pollution exceeds legal limits. It is no surprise that the government’s critics have repeatedly pointed to a lack of action on diesel cars.

While this is understandable, it is one area where things are slowly getting better, partly through local actions and partly because, on average, newer vehicles actually do emit less pollution than the vehicles they are replacing. The highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) in UK cities were typically seen in 2010 and in many places have declined since then. Some of the forecasts of future road transport emissions may also have been overly pessimistic. The strategy is banking on this trend continuing, and it restates the long-term target of phasing out fossil fuel-only vehicles by 2040.

What’s in the strategy

This is part of a wider focus which acknowledges that air pollution is much more than just a roadside problem. One eye-catching component concerns fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 since the particles are less than 2.5 micrometers across. These are really too tiny to see with the eye, yet present a major health risk as particles this small can easily find their way deep into the lungs and finally the bloodstream.

The strategy now recognises the most stringent World Health Organisation limits for PM2.5, and includes an ambition to halve the number of people living in areas with concentrations above that limit. This would mean the UK was working toward meeting tougher PM2.5 standards than virtually every other industrialised nation.

The strategy also sets out plans for reducing emissions across different source types rather just tackling each pollutant in isolation: in some cases with proposals for specific actions, in others more general ambitions for reductions. Interesting examples in the strategy include a proposed gradual retirement of diesel trains and the voluntary labelling of solvents in consumer products. It also looks serious about finally tackling the long-standing issue of ammonia emissions from agriculture, and it raises the emerging health issue of managing indoor air quality.

This sort of multi-pollutant approach makes sense, since different classes of chemical can interact with one another to form secondary air pollution. For instance, nitrogen oxides (NOx) from combustion combine with ammonia from farming to create a substantial fraction of the particulate matter that is found in the air. That same NOx can also combine with gaseous solvents to form ozone. Real improvements can only be achieved by simultaneously reducing emissions from these disparate sectors.

Pollution does not respect borders

While the government will always be measured first against its ability to deliver good air quality at a local level, the strategy reflects that the health and ecological impacts do not stop at the borders of individual countries. Although less reported on than the ambient air quality standards, the EU also sets specific limits on the total emissions that each country can make, to minimise the spread of pollution between countries.

The need to manage air pollution at an international level is frequently cited in the new strategy. Limits on pollution emissions from each EU country are set in the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) and are straightforward to understand, if complex to actually estimate or measure. On this issue Brexit will not change things since the UK’s commitments to reduce emissions are mirrored in the standalone UNECE Convention on Long Range Trans-boundary Air Pollution, to which the UK (along with 50 other countries, including the US and Canada) is a signatory.

The location of the UK means that it has the good fortune to be less affected by trans-boundary pollution than many other countries – there is a very large and generally very clean Atlantic ocean upwind. But even Britain feels the effects on occasion and many of its smoggiest days, particularly in southern England, are exacerbated by pollution flowing in from mainland Europe.

A focus in the strategy on reducing emissions, even when local air quality targets have been met, reflects that UK has signed up to new binding limits for trans-boundary pollution in 2020 and 2030, and these will require close to a halving of emissions of some pollutants. One reason why NECD has rarely been in the headlines is that, up until now, meeting these national targets has been quite straightforward, as compared to ambient concentrations where limits have been frequently exceeded. By the 2020s it seems likely that ambient concentrations will have fallen further. At this point, meeting the increasingly tough international emissions targets may become the new legal compliance challenge.

The ConversationThere will no doubt be debate over whether the strategy moves far or fast enough to clean up the outstanding urban hotspots. Quantifying the broader success, or failure, of the strategy over the long-term will however be complex. It’s relatively easy to measure the concentration of pollutants in the air, but it is more difficult to devise metrics that capture all the intended benefits, such as improvements to health, productivity and to the wider environment. This is where the government will need to work hard to convince those that may have to pay that investment in emissions reduction is money well spent.

Alastair Lewis, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of York and Sarah Moller, Knowledge Exchange and Research Fellow, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.