Why has the UK decided against WHO legal limits on air pollution?

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MPs voted against enshrining World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) into UK law in the environment bill. What's the debate?

Shadow Climate Change Minister, Dr Alan Whitehead, who put the amendment to the House of Commons before it was suspended due to coronavirus, explained that the guideline is the “wake-up call” the UK needs to reduce emissions which he said have plateaued since the early 2000s.

The environment bill promises to set at least one long-term target on air quality by 31 October 2022. But it does not specify what the target will be

He said: “I worry about the idea that a target should only be set if we know that the target can be achieved and exceeded immediately.

“If we did that all of the time, we would not have targets. We would set what we were going to do as a target and—well I never—we would always achieve it. A target has to be something that is grasping at the stars in order to be achieved.

"A target, among other things, should not just be based on the idea that you can do something now, easily.”

The Bill promises to set “at least one new long-term target” in each of the four priority areas of water, air quality, waste and resources, and biodiversity by 31 October 2022. But it does not specify what the targets will be.

The tiny PM2.5 is hazardous to health because it can penetrate deep into human tissue and lungs, causing heart disease and lung cancers.

British Safety Council's Time to Breathe campaign highlights the risk of toxic air to vulnerable outdoor workers

The amendment called for the PM2.5 air quality target to be “less than or equal to 10 g/m3” equivalent to WHO guidelines to protect human health.

MP Rebecca Pow, undersecretary for the department for food and rural affairs (DEFRA) responded: “If we set unrealistic targets, it could lead to actions that are neither cost effective nor proportionate.”

She said that there was a “strong case” for ambitious action on fine particulate matter “which is why we are creating through this Bill a specific duty to set a target for [air quality].” She argued that the bill needed to be “flexible” to allow for government to hear the science and work out what can be achieved.

Dr Whitehead said this was not good enough as pollution levels had “pretty much plateaued between the early 2000s and the present.” 

"We need to align ourselves with the WHO guidelines, so that we can ensure that we are targeting a regular and continuing reduction in emissions.”

The government has been taken to court three times by environmental law firm, Client Earth for breaching safe levels of air pollution set by the European Union.

Due to Brexit, the government will now be held to account by an independent body it has set up called the Office for Environmental Protection

Ms Pow explained that the OEP would review progress of environmental measures against a ‘significant improvements’ test every five years. “If it disagrees with the government’s interpretation [of the law], it can publish a report,” she said.

According to the WHO’s global health data, only Australia, Iceland and New Zealand (and small parts of Europe) come below the 10 g/m3 guidelines for fine particulate matter in urban areas.

MPs were debating the environment bill on 19 March. It will have its final reading in the House of Commons when normal parliamentary work resumes. 

Environment Bill here




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