Aside from what they would have you think, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been something of a convalescence home for Michael Gove since he took over as environment secretary in 2017. Following a series of embarrassments and controversies, from locking himself in the toilet on his first day as chief whip to his infamous eleventh hour betrayal of Boris Johnson in the 2016 leadership contest, Gove has been at pains to foment a collective amnesia among his Tory colleagues regarding his leadership credentials.
By keeping his head firmly below the Brexit parapet and indulging in ineffectual but headline-grabbing policies, he has won himself a certain amount of adulation. But when it comes to locking horns with the major environmental challenges of the day, Michael Gove has shied away from ambitious action time and time again, hiding behind endless promises of further consultation and always-to-be-delayed announcements.
Last year, it was the 25-year environment plan that offered up the un-squarable circle of leaving the environment in a better state for future generations without providing legally binding commitments or measurable targets. Now, in 2019, the Clean Air Strategy is the latest disappointment to flop out of Defra to the dejected grumbles of environmental campaigners.
Air pollution is responsible for 40,000 premature deaths every year in the UK and has recently been linked to a range of health problems from increased risk of miscarriage, to heart disease and dementia. The government’s own admission that ‘air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the UK’, only makes the absence of any plausible action to tackle the problem harder to swallow. Environmental lawyers, ClientEarth, have already taken the government to court three times over its failure to address the issue and this week the mother of a nine-year old girl who died from an asthma attack has been given the right to an inquest into her daughter’s death, following expert suggestions that it may have been linked to illegal levels of air pollution in south London.
The Clean Air Strategy was billed as an ambitious plan to make our air healthier to breathe, to protect nature and to boost the economy. Bafflingly, however, the government has neglected to address the one major issue that lies at the heart of this trifecta: road transport. For a strategy that the government is desperate to frame as ‘world-leading’, it is almost painful to read the section on road transport, which offers absolutely no new commitments. And this is in spite of the recognition on Defra’s own UK-Air website that ‘These days, the major threat to clean air is now posed by traffic emissions.’ Instead, whilst claiming to ‘put the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of zero emission vehicles’, the government has fallen back on its lazy target of banning petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040, ten years after India and fifteen years after Norway. Not only does this unambitious target mean our cities will remain crammed with dirty vehicles for another twenty years or more, it also misses the economic opportunity that comes with early investment in innovative technology.
The second major weakness of the strategy is its lack of legally binding targets. Policies like this strategy are not worth the paper they’re written on if they’re not backed up in law, as they can be abandoned at the whim of successive governments. When it comes to particulate matter (PM), for example, the strategy sets out a vague commitment to bring emissions in line with World Health Organisation recommendations. But the government avoids sullying its record of ambiguity to specify what the target will be or how it will be achieved. It also stops short of committing to reduce particulate pollution for everyone, instead promising only to halve the number of people living in areas with high levels of PM2.5 by 2025. Six years from now, the poorest people living in the most densely populated towns and cities – especially the elderly and children – will still be choking on the fumes of this government’s incompetence.
Last month, as Chair of the APPG on Air Pollution, I led a meeting of experts in maritime pollution who made a number of clear, achievable recommendations for reducing emissions from shipping. One of these recommendations was to extend Emissions Control Areas (ECAs), which currently only cover the North Sea and the English Channel, to all waters. Did the recommendation make it into the Clean Air Strategy? Of course not. Instead, we were promised yet another consultation at some unspecified future date.
The shipping industry is one of the most serious emitters of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, with the fifteen largest ships producing as much air pollution as all the world’s cars. Studies have also linked the risk of autism specifically with air pollution from shipping. Given the scale of the threat to public health, the public is beginning to tire of Michael Gove’s penchant for procrastination. In promising to leave the environment in a better state for future generations, he seems to have forgotten that constant delays in his department mean the current generation is suffering the consequences of environmental degradation right now.
That said, credit where credit is due. In a strategy of over 100 pages it would be virtually impossible to fail to include even a single decent policy, and the commitments to tackle ammonia emissions from agriculture and indoor wood-burning stoves are certainly welcome. But taken as a whole, this strategy makes plain that Mr Gove is a man of soundbites, not substance. He may have rejuvenated his damaged brand with his green ties and his reusable cup, but when it comes to protecting vulnerable people from poisonous air, he’d rather wait until tomorrow.
In the absence of government leadership, I will continue to fight for our right to breathe clean air. Using my own Clean Air Bill, I am building support for a vision in which road vehicles are held to a higher standard, EU air quality standards are respected, ships are required to reduce their emissions and the tax system is used to incentivise the uptake of low-emissions vehicles. As with so many things these days, when the government can’t lead and citizens are demanding a safe environment for their children, it falls to MPs to pick up the slack.
Geraint Davies is the Labour MP for Swansea West and chair of the APPG on Air Pollution