A new consultation document, drawn up by the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), states that over 50,000 people a year die prematurely as a result of UK air pollution that is directly linked to vehicle emissions. The report calls for upgraded cycling infrastructure as one means of addressing this.
The document was launched by the environment secretary Elizabeth Truss at the same time as the announcement of the new Labour party leader on Saturday. One of the most striking elements within it is the estimate that around 29,000 UK deaths are hastened by inhalation of particulate matter (which is linked to fuel emissions), on top of 23,500 that are brought about by nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
The report goes on to state:
“On average around 80% of NOx emissions in areas where the UK is exceeding NO2 limits are due to transport, although non-transport sources of NO2 are still considerable contributors. The largest source is emissions from diesel light duty vehicles (cars and vans) where both the emissions standards have had least impact and there has been significant growth in vehicle numbers over the last ten years.
“Addressing transport therefore presents a significant opportunity to improve air quality. Transport is a key part of almost everything we do, as individuals or businesses, and its impacts are much wider than air quality. As such it is essential we take an integrated approach. By the careful choice of measures, recognising the economic impact and value, we can deliver much broader benefits alongside air quality.”
Speaking to BikeBiz, Chris Boardman reacted to the report by proclaiming himself mystified as to “why these preventable deaths aren’t being treated as a national emergency, a full-blown crisis.”
Defra had previously expected seven UK urban areas to still be breaking EU law in 2020. However, in April the Supreme Court ruled that this was unacceptable and ordered the Government to submit a new plan to meet European air pollution limits. It now expects all areas except Greater London to comply with EU pollution laws by 2020 with the capital meeting targets by 2025.
To achieve this, the government is asking local authorities to consider various moves such as; creating Clean Air Zones within which only certain vehicles are permitted; introducing low emission buses and taxis; and using data to inform new road layouts. Other suggestions include upgrading cycling infrastructure, providing networks of electric car charging points and introducing or expanding park and ride schemes. Truss invited both local authorities and the public to share ideas on what can be done with the consultation open until November.
However, many campaigners remain unimpressed. Alan Andrews, the director of Client Earth – the group of environmental lawyers who took the government to court – told The Guardian that it was merely passing the responsibility for action onto others.
“The first reaction is disappointment. We are heading in the right direction but we are not seeing anything like a clear commitment to doing anything. The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities. There has to be a clear legal commitment to act, otherwise the plans will be rejected by Europe. If we are not convinced, we will go back to court.”
Simon Birkett, the director of Clean Air for London, echoed those sentiments. “Defra is passing all responsibility, without money or new powers, to local authorities. It is flouting the Supreme Court ruling to submit proper plans to the European commission by 31 December by intending instead to submit a ‘plan for plans by others’.”