Disappearing in the haze

With the world rightly focused on action to limit the impacts of climate change, it has become easier for politicians to forget about less glamorous issues such as air quality. To a degree, it’s understandable. The Environment Agency’s latest Spotlight report shows that, after years of regulation, our air, water and land has never been cleaner (see p 18 ) and site management is improving (see p 19 ).

Yet the problem is not solved. In last year’s revised air quality strategy, the Environment Department (DEFRA) estimated that emissions of particulate matter alone, for which there is no safe level of exposure, cuts average life expectancy in the UK by eight months and costs up to £21 billion per year. Yet DEFRA proposed few new measures to reduce this toll (ENDS Report 391, p 52 ).

This month, DEFRA confirmed it is to seek to delay achieving EU air quality standards for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (see p 51 ). Breaches of the PM10standard, which came into force in 2005, are commonplace in urban areas. Although the EU limit for NO2 doesn’t become mandatory until 2010, as a non-binding UK air quality objective it has been exceeded since 2005. For both, road transport is the main culprit.

The delays could see the standards being put off until 2011 for PM10and 2015 for NO2, causing thousands of people in our traffic-choked towns and cities to continue to be exposed to unacceptably high levels of air pollution. With all of the major environmental groups campaigning hard on climate change, hardly anyone is kicking up a stink over DEFRA’s complacency.

The UK is not the only one sitting on its hands over air quality. The European Commission this month has again delayed revision of the national emissions ceilings Directive which sets caps on key air pollutants (see p 56 ). Pressure from member states over the costs appears to be the reason.

It must not be a choice between action against global warming or poor air quality. Indeed, shifting to a low-carbon economy will reduce air pollution. Renewable sources of energy for electricity generation and transport can produce fewer air pollutants as well as less carbon. If we must have some new coal-fired power stations, let’s ensure they are all built with carbon capture and storage which necessitates that nitrogen and sulphur oxides are minimised so as to avoid contaminating the carbon capture process.

Tough air pollution standards can help drive this transition by strengthening the price incentive for non-fossil fuel energy sources, extending human lives, improving public health and reducing damage to ecosystems on the way. It’s time for some joined-up thinking on climate change and air quality.

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