Air quality Contents

2Strategy for improving air quality

Air quality problems

5.Everyday activities create a wide range of air pollutants from many different sources. Generating and using energy in homes, businesses and vehicles, and industrial and farming activity produces pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and volatile organic compounds.8 The UK has made significant progress in improving air quality over a number of decades; emissions have declined steeply, although the rate of reduction is levelling off. With the exception of NO₂, pollutant levels are low enough to meet legal limits, but emissions remain sufficient to cause health problems as well as harming the environment.

Figure 1: Trends in UK sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, ammonia and particulate matter (PM₁₀, PM₂.₅) emissions 1970–2013

Source: Defra, Draft plans to improve air quality in the UK: Tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities, UK overview document, September 2015

Health impacts

6.Scientific evidence has been mounting for a number of years on the impacts of air pollutants on people’s health. The harmful impacts of pollution from diesel in particular have been more definitively determined; in 2012 the World Health Organisation (WHO) unequivocally classified it a carcinogen.9 Health impacts of all air pollutants cost the UK economy some £15-20 billion a year.10 More importantly many thousands of people bear the human costs associated with damaged cardiac and respiratory systems and life-limiting diseases. Defra states that NO₂ and particulates,11 contribute to the early deaths of more than 50,000 people in the UK annually;12 the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health put the figure at 40,000. The Colleges consider that neither UK government nor WHO guidelines set levels of air pollution that are “entirely safe for the whole population”. The bodies state that “when our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty as doctors to speak out”.13

Environmental impacts

7.Pollution in the air directly damages biodiversity and impedes crop growth. Once deposited into water and onto soil, it has further harmful impacts such as depleting oxygen in water bodies and killing fish and other aquatic life. England’s air and water is sufficiently polluted in 96% of sensitive habitats to pose risks to their ecosystems. The economic impacts of pollution on agriculture are also significant. For example, ground level ozone produced by nitrogen oxides reacting with other atmospheric pollutants lowers crop yields, at an estimated annual cost to UK farmers of £180 million.14

Joining up government action

8.Many witnesses, including the Local Government Association (LGA), considered that Defra failed to take a “coherent, cross-government approach”, which, if true, would be a critical omission given the range of sectors including transport, energy and agriculture which contribute to poor air quality. The LGA cited Defra’s lack of dialogue with the Department for Transport as particularly problematic.15 Although Defra is the lead department for air quality policy, the Cabinet Office has a key role in co-ordinating government action: Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is Chair of the inter-ministerial Clean Growth Group tasked with pulling together Government approaches for tackling, amongst other things, poor air quality. Commentators consider that Group to be secretive; it does not publish information on its meetings, outcomes or action plans.16 Mr Letwin told us that, although details of meetings were not normally made public, the Group met regularly and would continue to do so for a “very considerable period” since challenges would not be overcome rapidly. The Group aimed to ensure Defra policies were co-ordinated with other government departments’ actions, for example on Clean Air Zone implementation and on the EU vehicle emissions testing regime.17

9.Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions. The Cabinet Office must establish clearly with all government departments their duty to consider air quality in developing policies. Furthermore, Ministers must tell the public more clearly how it is co-ordinating action since the work of the inter-ministerial Clean Growth Group is opaque; we recommend that the Cabinet Office report to Parliament before 21 July 2016 on the actions it plans over the coming year to join up effective action across government.

Defra’s air quality strategy

10.In December 2015 Defra published plans for tackling NO₂ emissions, principally from the transport sector.18 Defra’s previous comprehensive air quality strategy covering all sectors was published a decade ago. Witnesses criticised this narrow focus on NO₂ emissions and highlighted gaps in policies for specific areas; for example Calor Gas Ltd considered that the use of biomass to heat homes had “gone under the radar” despite it having a “considerable” impact on life-spans.19 Furthermore, indoor air pollution is not included in recent plans; the Building Engineering Services Association called on Defra to rectify this omission since pollution levels in air worsen when air enters a building.20 Harmful emissions can be created indoors too, from heating systems for example, or from the use of household cleaning products, and these can be concentrated by poor ventilation in modern, well-insulated buildings.21

11.Many witnesses called for an over-arching strategy for tackling pollutants from all sectors; the Joint Nature Conservation Committee considered that this would “set a common vision and a framework for delivery”.22 Emerging scientific evidence on the impacts on health has also strengthened calls for such a strategy. Public health expert Professor Paul Wilkinson told us that, as epidemiological and other evidence accumulated, it would be prudent to consider all air pollutants together rather than focusing on individual constituents in isolation.23

12.We questioned Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, Rory Stewart MP, about Defra’s approach. He referred only to the specific NO₂ plans published in December 2015.24 After we finished taking evidence, in February 2016 Defra published its Departmental Plan for 2015–20. This states that Defra will invest in cleaner air and will monitor levels of two pollutants, NO₂ and fine particulates. However, it makes no reference to a broader strategy or timescales for action, and it does not include indicators for measuring progress on tackling other pollutants such as ammonia.25

13.Defra’s plans focus too narrowly on nitrogen dioxide pollution, principally from traffic. If the full health and environmental benefits of cleaner air are to be achieved, Defra must set out plans to cut emissions of all air pollutants and from all sources, including from the transport, industry, energy and farming sectors. Plans must aim to clean up indoor as well as outdoor air.

14.We recommend that the Department publish by the end of 2016 a comprehensive strategy for improving air quality and report annually to Parliament on progress in delivering its objectives.

Cost-benefit analysis

15.Pollutants such as NO₂ have health impacts in concentrations below legal limits and, as Professor Wilkinson noted, “the lower the concentrations, the greater the health benefits”.26 The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) stated more strongly that there was no concentration limit at which exposure was considered safe, and noted that the EU set upper limits not targets.27 Many witnesses urged the Government to speed up action to reduce pollution beyond current plans, but provided limited data on the costs of achieving this. Defra has published data on the impact of its current NO₂ plans but not on the cost-benefits of more radical approaches, such as banning diesel cars or limiting new building in city pollution hot-spots, which might bring emissions down to levels well below legal limits.28 Neither, in the absence of a recent over-arching strategy, does Defra provide up-to-date information on the cumulative cost-benefits of policies to tackle air pollution across a range of sectors. This makes it difficult for us to reach a judgement on the implications of more ambitious plans.

16.It is also currently difficult to assign accurate and consistent values to the economic impacts of environmental problems. Witnesses, such as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, urged the Government to establish the full environmental costs of pollution and the savings to biodiversity, farming and the countryside of reducing it since this evidence would spur greater action.29 The Natural Capital Committee is currently looking at how to identify and assign values to the benefits that a healthy environment provides to society; this information will give policy-makers the potential to better evaluate the economic as well as social and environmental impacts of policies on air quality.

17.Defra’s policies aim to cut air pollution to achieve legal limits yet threats to health and the environment remain even at lower levels. Defra must calculate whether cost-effective means can be developed for meeting tougher targets. This calculation must be based on robust evidence about the benefits of cleaner air against the costs of policies needed to achieve it, such as constraints on new development.

18.Better information is needed; we welcome the Natural Capital Committee’s work to identify and place a value on the contribution of clean air to society. Defra must develop, as soon as possible after the Natural Capital Committee produces its findings, practical tools for policy-makers to use in evaluating the costs and benefits of air quality proposals and ensure that the reasoning base for these tools is made publicly available.

19.Whilst supporting further action on air quality, some witnesses were none the less concerned about the additional costs of regulation. The Mineral Products Association considered that its members bore increased burdens because the Environment Agency had ‘gold-plated’ EU environmental regulations. The Association preferred voluntary action; investment had cut cement plant emissions of dust by 83% and of oxides of nitrogen by 62% since 1998, but only a “small proportion” of this was a result of regulatory requirements.30

20.Defra’s policies must provide incentives for voluntary action as a first option before additional regulation is considered. Voluntary approaches can lower pollution in the most cost-effective ways since industry can focus its efforts on actions that work best for specific activities rather than on demonstrating compliance with rules.

Reinvigorating government policy

21.This chapter has outlined a number of recommendations to address weaknesses we consider are hampering the Government’s ability to take action to cut air pollution. In summary, the Government must accord poor air quality a priority commensurate with the toll on the nation’s health and environment. Emission reduction targets must be based on scientific evidence and strategies for pollution reduction based on effective cost-benefit analyses. Ministers must set out with absolute clarity the actions required across government if the public is to be reassured that the Government is committed to improving air quality quickly and substantially.

8 Nitrogen oxides (NOx) includes both nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂).

10 The Scottish Government, Cleaner Air for Scotland, the road to a healthier future, November 2015, is the source for the £15 billion figure. The £20 billion figure comes from the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report, Every breath we take, February 2016.

11 Particulate matter (PM) is particles, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets, found in the air. Some particles are large or dark enough to be visible, others can only be detected with an electron microscope. Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM₁₀) can be inhaled and can accumulate in the respiratory system. Fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM₂.₅) are believed to pose the greatest health risks as they can lodge deeply in lungs.

13 Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Every breath we take, February 2016

14 Joint Nature Conservation Committee, (AQU12), paras 3.3 -3.6

15 Local Government Association (AQU 27) para 2

17 Qq 292,293

19 Calor Gas Ltd (AQU 08) para 9. Note: the company acknowledges there is limited data on mortality linked to smaller particles produced by biomass boilers.

20 Building Engineering Services Association (AQU 22)

21 Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Every breath we take, February 2016

22 Joint Nature Conservation Committee, (AQU12), para 5.4

23 Professor Paul Wilkinson (AQU 29), see also evidence from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (AQU12)

24 Q291

25 Defra, Single Departmental Plan 2015–2020, para 1.2

26 Q2

27 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (AQU16) para 11

29 Joint Nature Conservation Committee (AQU12)

30 Mineral Products Association (AQU15) para 13. % reductions are per tonne of cement produced.

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

25 April 2016