Air quality experts met to debate the forthcoming Environment Bill, including air pollution links to Covid-19 and what should be done to protect people’s health.
Rebecca Pow, minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the Bill will contain a ‘broad range of measures’ to tackle air pollution.
It will include how to build the evidence base to support air pollution targets; emission reduction measures such as clean air zones; and a process for setting, reporting and enforcing new targets. It will also ‘empower local authorities to act on hotspots,’ with the minister “delighted to announce that Bath and Birmingham will be implementing clean air zones in 2021.”
Pow was speaking at an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on air pollution on 14 October. Speaking on links to Covid-19, she explained that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had received a report in August from the Office for National Statistics to show a correlation between elevated levels of air pollution and increased Covid-19 mortality (particularly in BAME communities).
Though much of this can be explained by pre-existing health conditions (recognising that these might be linked to air pollution), the minister explained that research will continue on this topic of ‘high public concern’. Generally, the minister explained that the government’s Bill has an ambitious post Covid-19 agenda for ‘a green, resilient and fairer recovery’.
In response, Stephen Holgate, Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said that the country urgently needs a national plan, and that the Environment Bill should be at the heart of it. “The system is too fragmented,” he said.
He explained that there is a lack of input from the Department of Health, where air pollution has been devolved to Public Health England – a body which itself is changing. Further, local authorities have been given responsibilities to tackle air pollution that they don’t have the capacity to undertake.
He also said that he wanted to see a much stronger focus on human health rather than targets. For example, ultra-fine particles (PM2.5) do not all have the same health impacts and there is a danger that by focusing on a general target, these differences are missed to detriment of public health.
Further discussion picked up concerns about the Bill’s lack of enforcement machinery or any clear target setting. It was recognised that the Bill sets out a legal requirement to oversee a process for setting an air pollution target, but nothing that would stop the current or future governments from lowering standards currently set by EU-derived regulation or to hold a government to account if they failed to achieve a target.
Given how the government has successfully been held to account through legal action for its failures to meet air quality targets in the past, this concerned many at the meeting. It was also pointed out that local authorities are subject to more stringent obligations than ministers. One speaker asked: “Where does legal responsibility to meet air quality standards ultimately lie?”
Finally, a question was asked about citizen monitoring of air pollution to enable individuals to make choices to avoid exposure and provide the evidence to persuade national and local authorities to act.
The experts’ view was that yes, monitoring was crucial, but that cost was an issue. One participant noted that it cannot be beyond our technological capabilities to release an accurate personal monitor for one or two signature pollutants for less than two hundred pounds.
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