Simon Birkett of Clean Air in London says the government must act on the Environmental Audit Committee's recommendations
No parliamentary select committee can ever have published a more damning report on a government's failure to protect its people. We're at a 'tipping point', and business would be wise to pay attention.
Yesterday, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report entitled Air quality: a further report. It is clearly furious that the new government has done nothing, in the 18 months since the EAC identified air pollution as the biggest public health risk after smoking, to address this invisible crisis.
Amazingly, the EAC found evidence that the government is actively seeking to weaken legal protections that have been in legislation since 1999 to protect public health. You have to conclude that ministers don't understand the situation, or are going to great lengths to 'ignore' it. One leading journalist, erring towards the latter view, has already called it "state-sanctioned mass poisoning".
It is the inequalities of worsened air pollution that are most likely to cause a public outcry. At a conference in September, I saw evidence from Imperial College that poor air quality is associated with areas of low income, low employment and lower education attainment, with differences in exposure to air pollution between different ethnic groups. The research, entitled Associations between small area levels of air pollution and socio-economic characteristics in the Netherlands and England, is due to be published shortly.
I recollect it showed that those worst affected are exposed to some 50 per cent more nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a traffic-related air pollutant, than the rich and white, i.e. up to twice the inequalities associated with dangerous airborne particles (PM10).
Very oddly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed to Clean Air in London that it chose not to undertake a Racial Equality Impact Assessment for NO2 when consulting on plans that would delay compliance with NO2 laws until 2015, 2020 and 2025 (in London's case). This is despite doing such a study for PM10 in August 2009. Clean Air in London met shadow environment ministers yesterday to brief them on the issue.
There's good news if the government accepts the EAC report and recommendations. Ministers need to address socio-economic inequalities by warning people about the dangers of air pollution and giving them advice on protecting themselves (adaptation) and reducing pollution for themselves and others (mitigation).
Ministers need also to ban the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted places, as Germany, for example, has already done in over 40 cities. With the EAC calling for the Cabinet Office to take the lead from Defra on a new air quality strategy, only the prime minister or deputy prime minister has the authority to accept the recommendations in full.
For business, perhaps the most important sentence in the EAC's cross-party report was: "We can see no circumstances in which a delay in achieving [EU limit value] targets or a lessening of these targets would be acceptable."
These targets, which are breached by a factor of two near our busiest streets, have been in legislation for PM10 and NO2 since 1999 to be complied with by January 2005 and 2010 respectively. Some 925,000 people in the UK in 2010 were exposed to NO2 exceeding the legal limit, 700,000 of those in London. On several measures, the UK has the worst NO2 pollution of all 27 member states in the EU.
The UK economy is at a 'tipping point' in more ways than one. Our economic, social and environmental future may depend on the government's answer to one question: do you want to use massive subsidies to defend dying industries (no pun intended); or do you want to spark innovation, protect public health and set us on a sustainable path?
Addressing this public health crisis of over 4,000 deaths a year in London attributable to long-term exposure to particles will take the same effort as it took - backed by the Clean Air Act - to tackle the 4,000 deaths we saw during the Great Smog of 1952 (when we knew nothing of the effects of long-term exposure to air pollution).
If the government 'gets it', in the way the EAC and the shadow Defra team clearly do, it needs to encourage simultaneous investment in the short- and long-term solutions to this crisis. The business sectors likely to benefit most from this revolution, over both timescales, will be those that can reduce harmful emissions from vehicles and buildings.
The mayoral election in London next May offers the first political test of this new world.
Simon Birkett is founder and director of Clean Air in London