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Government urged to slash PM2.5 air pollutants by 2030

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The government should amend the Environment Bill to include targets for lower concentrations of air pollutant PM2.5 particles in order to protect people from its devastating health impacts, MPs have said.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has warned that air pollution is the largest environmental risk to UK public health and is linked to as many as 64,000 early deaths a year.

The Covid-19-induced lockdowns last year saw air pollution fall in urban areas across the UK as traffic levels were cut rapidly. However, by September most towns and cities saw a return to pre-lockdown levels of air pollution.

EFRA also said that links could be drawn between those exposed to more extreme levels of air pollution and their susceptibility to dying from Covid-19.

London’s Oxford Street for example, which is one of the most polluted areas in the UK, typically breaches the annual legal EU limit for nitrogen dioxide just one week into the new year.

EFRA called for targets to be introduced to reduce the annual mean concentration of PM2.5 to under 10μg/m3 by 2030, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines.

It also recommended that the environment minister should use his discretionary powers in the Bill to set additional long-term air quality targets for the other key pollutants that harm human health.

The government introduced its Clean Air Strategy in 2019 which aims to cut the costs of air pollution by £1.7bn every year by 2020, rising to £5.3bn every year from 2030. But EFRA said this relies too much on local authorities, delegating most responsibility for delivering air quality improvements to them without providing sufficient resources to deliver the plans.

Furthermore, while a reduction in public transport usage was deemed necessary to lower transmission rates during the pandemic, the government was urged to prevent a permanent shift in public attitudes towards it after restrictions are lifted.

Neil Parish MP, chairman of the select committee, said: “In rebuilding after the pandemic, we have a moral duty to put improving air quality at its core.”

“We were quick to return to our old ways following the spring lockdown, with pollution levels bouncing back by the summer.

“The government has rightly banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but we need more work to help accelerate towards a greener, cleaner future, so that commuting less and using electric vehicles more will be a real option for the majority,” he said.

A study last month found that while urban air pollution levels did drop during the first Covid-19 lockdowns, the falls were smaller than expected.

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