london air pollution

UK will fail to meet 2030 air-pollution goal without ‘robust’ action

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Government initiatives to cut air pollution have “not moved as fast as expected” and it is unclear how current 2030 targets will be met, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

The UK has legal air-quality limits for major pollutants at a local and national level, covering pollution from ammonia, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides (NO2), non-methane volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, and more.

An NAO report assessing the effectiveness of policies designed to tackle these pollutants has found that only sluggish national action has been taken to tackle the challenges on major roads and motorways, which means overall compliance cannot be achieved until after 2030.

This is more than four years later than the government expected when it published its plan for tackling NO2 in 2017.

Furthermore, the NAO said there is particular concern about the health risks from particulate matter and ammonia.

“Government is not yet clear how it will meet existing 2030 ceiling limits, and expects to set new long-term targets for particulate matter by October 2022,” the report states.

The NAO urged faster action with “robust plans” to meet these targets if it is to put itself in a good position to meet them.

Most of the UK’s legal limits on air pollution were met between 2010 and 2019, with the exception of the NO2 annual mean concentration limit, for which there have been longstanding breaches.

The report also found that while the government publishes a lot of air-quality data, most of this does not give the public accessible information about air-quality problems and action in their area.

There has also been little public engagement at a national level about the choices it has made to tackle breaches.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Government has made progress with tackling illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution, but not as fast as expected.

“There are also concerns about the health risks from particulate matter, which government is finding challenging to tackle.

“To meet all its 2030 targets for major air pollutants, government will need to develop robust solutions quickly.

“The public need clear information to understand why clean-air measures are important and what the measures will mean in their area.

“Those living in the worst-affected areas ought to be able to find out when and how their air quality is likely to improve.”

In response to the report, Meg Hillier, Labour chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Government is dragging its feet on tackling air quality and it’s people’s health that will suffer.

“The clock is ticking for the UK to meet its targets, and time to implement the new policy measures needed is rapidly draining away.”

She added: “Proper communication with the public has been sorely lacking. Publishing information that can’t be understood is like serving soup without a spoon – it’s pointless.

“Properly engaging with the public on air quality is vital so they can become part of the solution.”

A government spokesperson said: “We welcome the findings of the NAO report, which rightly highlights the progress made by the government whilst also recognising the challenges we face.

“Air pollution at a national level continues to reduce significantly, with nitrogen oxide levels down by 44 per cent and PM2.5 down 18 per cent since 2010.

“We have committed nearly £900m to tackle air pollution and improve public health. We have also set stretching and ambitious targets on air quality through our world-leading Environment Act, with a live public consultation showing our ongoing desire to engage with the public on this crucial issue.”

In May, Transport for London began consulting on plans to expand the Capital’s Ultra-Low-Emission Zone (ULEZ) so that it covers the whole city from next year.

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