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World Environment Day Reflections on Air Quality – A View from our Chair

IAQM Chair, Claire Holman FIAQM, shares her reflections on key challenges within the air quality sector. 

There is currently unprecedented interest in air quality across the world, as evidence of its adverse effects deepens. Yet the car industry and its suppliers remain blinkered. Twice in recent months, I have talked to two industry employees. One I met whilst travelling and the other at my tennis club. Both articulately expressed disbelief at the health effects of vehicle emissions. I can only imagine that this is due to the information disseminated by their employers or industry bodies. Whilst such attitudes prevail it is unlikely that the motor industry will put protection of the environment anywhere near the top of their agenda.

There are depressing new results from Emissions Analytics which suggest that new petrol cars have much higher on-road CO2 emissions than under the official laboratory-based test. This is despite the introduction of a more stringent test known as the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP). It is important that this data is accurate as it issued for labelling new cars and calculating manufacturer fleet average CO2 emissions. The real world tests show that average CO2 emissions exceed the current 130 g/km fleet average CO2 target and are well above the 95 g/km target for 2021. It is difficult to understand why the real driving emission test, introduced for other air pollutants in 2017, did not include CO2.

It is not only human health that is affected by poor air quality. Too often the adverse effects on our precious semi-natural environments get forgotten. The deposition of nitrogen from the air has changed the biodiversity of our historical landscapes, from the lowland heaths in Sussex to the Scots Pine forests of Scotland. There are many sources of this nitrogen, and much of it gets transported into the UK from other countries. Ammonia emissions, mainly from agriculture, play a very important role in nitrogen pollution. For the first time, the Government has begun to address this issue. The Clean Air Strategy (CAS), published at the beginning of 2019, includes new measures to reduce emissions from cattle and fertiliser application. Many are voluntary, such as the Code of Good Agricultural Practice Dairy, but there are some with more teeth. For example, intensive beef farms will be required to have environmental permits for the first time. Although this measure is the result of a recent European Court of Justice ruling it is encouraging that the government appears to be prepared to address the agricultural industry, which has traditionally been seen to be ‘too difficult’.

Talking of teeth, it seems the Government’s promise for a new environmental watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection, has been downgraded. In its current form, it does not provide the protection currently provided by European legislation. Independence from Government is vital. In its current form, it will be accountable to and funded by Defra, not by Parliament. With this structure it is unlikely to have sufficient teeth to be effective.

Returning to the CAS, it also included a commitment to provideguidance for local authorities explaining how cumulative impacts of nitrogen deposition on natural habitats should be mitigated and assessed through the planning system. This has not been published yet. Meanwhile, the IAQM has produced a document for its members guiding them through the air quality impact assessment procedures. This is due to be released on Clean Air Day (20th June 2019) and aims to provide some clarity in light of recent legal challenges under the Habitats Directive.

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