Chair’s Column, January 2017

Posted on January 3rd, 2017

claire_holman2The European Commission designated 2013 the ‘Year of Air’. They chose the wrong year in my opinion. It should have been last year. Not because concentrations were particularly high or the problems have been solved, but because of the degree of interest in air pollution shown by policy makers, the media, and of particular importance, the medical profession. It almost seemed like everyone (with some notable exceptions) wanted to get in on the act in 2016.

The year started with the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Paediatric and Child Health issuing Every Breath We Take: the Lifelong Impact of Air Pollution. This report highlighted that exposure to outdoor air pollution is linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and possibly dementia. They estimated that approximately 40,000 premature deaths each year are attributable to air pollution and that these health problems costs more than £20 billion every year. I understand that this was the first report from a medical professional body on air pollution for 40 years.

Later in the year, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change publishedA Breath of Fresh Air: Addressing Air Pollution and Climate Change Together for Health”It calls for a joined-up approach from government across health, transport, environment, and education departments, as well as phasing out of coal power stations, expanding clean air zones, preserving existing EU air quality regulations and informing and supporting health professionals to take action.

At the end of the year, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued draft guidelines on reducing road traffic pollution primarily aimed at local authorities. It recommends taking a number of actions in combination, as multiple interventions are likely to act cumulatively to produce significant change. This includes changes to driving style, selection of vehicles by the public sector, and the introduction of cycle lanes, clean air zones and congestion charging. It does not, however, go as far as the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, who said that diesel cars should be phased out.

It was not just the medics who have woken up to the effects of poor air quality. Several policy institutes published their recommendation for improving the situation. Policy Exchange, with King’s College London, published Part 2 of Up in the Air: How to Solve London’s Air Quality Crisis”This sets out a comprehensive package of measures to reduce emissions and improve air quality in London. The Institute for Public Policy Research also published their report Lethal and Illegal: Solving London’s Air Pollution Crisis which sets out their recommendations for policy changes at the European, national and local levels.

The interest in air pollution extended far beyond the UK borders with air pollution reports published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the World Bank, UNICEF and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and  Development (OECD) as well as the World Health Organization (WHO).

Looking back at my “Year of Air”, I cannot ignore ClientEarth’s successful challenge of the Government’s 2015 Air Quality Plan (AQP). Many air quality practitioners, including myself, found it difficult to believe that, by 2020, there would be only six cities failing to meet the annual nitrogen dioxide limit value. This view was vindicated by Judge Garnham’s conclusion “In my judgement, the AQP did not identify measures which would ensure that the exceedance period would be kept as short as possible; Instead it identified measures which, if very optimistic forecasts happened to be proved right and emerging data happened to be wrong, might achieve compliance. To adopt a plan based on such assumptions was to breach both the Directive and the Regulations.

Both Defra and ClientEarth agreed it would not be in anyone’s interest to quash the existing AQP, and the Judge ordered an amended plan be produced by the end of July 2017, with a draft by 24th April. Defra and DfT are recruiting new staff for their Joint Air Quality Unit and have much work to complete if a credible and legal plan is to be produced in the next seven months. There will also need to be a radical change in the Government’s thinking if the Draft Clean Air Zone (CAZ) Framework is anything to go by. It contained little that is new and provides no clear incentive for local authorities to voluntarily introduce a CAZ. Central Government is failing to understand the difficulties local authorities face and has shown little leadership on this issue.

The current LAQM background maps and the emission factor toolkit (EFT v7) are based on the same optimistic modelling as the 2015 AQP. When undertaking air quality assessments, our members should take note of the IAQM Position Statement Dealing with Uncertainty in Vehicle NOx Emissions within Air Quality Assessments issued last October. It is unlikely that the LAQM tools will be updated until after the new AQP is published.

Finally, I would like to wish all our members a happy new year, which should prove to be a very interesting one for air pollution.