THE BLOG

The Government Needs to Stop Passing the Buck on Air Pollution

25/04/2016 16:59

Diesel emissions have been shown to be up to 12 times the EU limit when vehicles are driven on roads and the Transport Secretary's response it that he is "disappointed the results are as bad as they are". Unsurprisingly from a government that never misses a chance to pass the buck, he added the "industry needs to raise its game".

I agree with him the industry needs to act, but we desperately need Ministers to raise their game too. When air pollution causes 50,000 premature deaths each year in the UK; when it's linked to cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease; when primary schools are forced to close because they are exposing young children to dangerous levels of pollution: it is not enough to be "disappointed".

Air pollution disproportionately affects more deprived communities and restricts the life chances of the next generation by impairing children's development. People are angry and the government needs to act.

And this is not just an issue for the Department of Transport. It is the Environment Secretary who is responsible for clean air, despite her silence on the topic.

This week's emissions results should not have been a surprise for the government. Their own air quality plans state that "The current differences between laboratory testing and real world emissions are unacceptable".

Yet Ministers have failed to act and, even worse, tried to block EU legislation to require random inspections of vehicles' real world emissions. They supported loopholes that give car companies permission to pollute well about the legal limits. And Defra cut funding for improving air quality by nearly 80%.

In December, on the last day of Parliament before Christmas, Defra quietly published its air quality plans. You would have thought they would be proud to publish a strategy that should save lives, but perhaps they knew that it would not stand up to scrutiny. After all, the Environment Secretary only published the plan because the Supreme Court ordered her to take action.

There is no urgency and no ambition in the government's timid plans. They are simply aiming to reduce air pollution so that we scrape over the line to comply with EU limits. Not this year, not next year, but by 2020. 2025 in the case of London.

Defra has decided that just five cities outside London will be required to have limited Clean Air Zones. But while other towns and cities blighted by air pollution remain ignored, there can be little confidence in the government's ability to tackle the problem.

The government's failure on air quality demonstrates again the vital importance of the environmental protections afforded us by Europe. Without EU rules on air quality, ClientEarth could not have taken the UK government to court over its repeated failure to tackle air pollution. But the Environment Secretary cannot continue to treat this as a bureaucratic tick-box exercise, only doing the bare minimum to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

In light of the latest evidence on real world diesel emissions, the Environment Secretary must urgently review her air quality plans. We need a national framework for low emission zones and genuine action at EU level to close the loopholes in emissions testing. The government must stop passing the buck and establish a comprehensive and effective strategy to improve air quality across the whole country.

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