The clean air strategy — does it go far enough?

Roman Danaev

Vaunted as a “green revolution”, fanfare has surrounded the government’s unveiling of a clean air strategy designed to tackle the traffic pollution that is estimated to contribute to 25,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, or some 5% of all deaths, according to the campaign group Healthy Air.

What does the strategy involve?

On the face of it, the strategy certainly involves some radical proposals. Probably the most eye-catching of these is the commitment to ban the sales of all petrol and diesel-powered cars and vans in the UK by the year 2040. In plans announced by the government towards the end of July 2017, this is expected to ensure that the vast majority of car and vans on the roads by 2050 have zero-rated emissions.

In addition to this headline-grabbing target, the main push is intended to come from local councils, according to a government briefing paper also published in July.

The paper described the £2.7 billion that is already being made available to implement its clean air strategy, including:

£1 billion of funding to encourage the use of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs);

£1.2 billion to promote cycling and walking as alternative preferred means of transport in cities;

a £290 million investment in the National Productivity Investment Fund — to encourage cleaner road transport by buses and taxis;

A total of £116 million in the Green Bus Fund and the Clean Bus Technology Fund; and

£100 million in traffic congestion improvements to the national road network.

The real impetus for change is expected at the local level, through the implementation by local councils of so-called clean air zones (with restricted entry or even charges for diesel vehicles), according to the government paper. To help achieve this, a £255 million Implementation Fund is to be created, a Clean Air Fund will also be set up, and £100 million will be made available to encourage the retrofitting and replacement of new low emission buses.

Is it enough?

According to many environmental pressure groups, for all the fanfare, the strategy simply does not go far enough — and many of their views are encapsulated in a report by the BBC on the 26th of July 2017.

Included in the criticism from a number of different groups are the complaints that:

  • the government strategy is too little, too late;
  • an estimated 40 million people live in areas with unacceptably high — and under European legislation, illegal — levels of pollution;
  • action, therefore, needs to be taken now, rather than in 23 years’ time;
  • since the chief culprits identified by the government itself are diesel-powered vehicles, why does the strategy not include immediate implementation of a diesel scrappage scheme;
  • others argue that the strategy is not comprehensive since it contains many notable gaps, such as control of emissions from farming, construction, and gas boilers.

Even some local councils — the very authorities expected to carry out the national clean air strategy — have described the measures as “woefully inadequate” according to a report in the Financial Times on the 26th of July, citing members of Sheffield City Council.

Local authorities seem to have been handed an almost impossible task, which boils down to an instruction to cut air pollution in their areas in the fastest possible time, yet without unfairly penalising “ordinary working families”.

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