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Improving air quality should be 'at core' of post-pandemic rebuild

11 February 2021

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warns of air pollution's deadliness and its disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities.

In their latest report, the EFRA Committee has called on the Government to address alarming levels of poor air quality in England, highlighting a 'strong and established' case for tackling air pollution, shown to disproportionately affect those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

They have urged the Government to set tougher targets to lower air pollution if it hopes to reduce the health inequalities laid bare by covid-19.

Key findings

Drawing on evidence taken from health experts, local councils and campaign groups, the Committee's Air Quality report urges the Government to firm up its commitment to clean air by amending the Environment Bill.

It calls on the Government to set a specific target to reduce particulate levels in line with World Health Organisation guidelines.   

Responding to fears that social distancing concerns may cause an increase in car use, the MPs call for a public campaign to encourage people to use public transport once the pandemic is over.

They also demand that Government investment in walking and cycling matches up to its rhetoric.  

Key recommendations

The Air Quality report has urged the Government to: 

Commit to making legal clean air targets more stringent

The report sets out the Government's 'moral case' for doing so, highlighting that the most disadvantaged communities who contribute the least to air pollution suffer the most from its effects.

It also raises concerns that the current Clean Air Strategy, ‘lacks the ambition to fully address' the challenges posed by poor air quality and that targets carried over from EU law could be 'easily amended'.

The Environment Bill must therefore be amended to include a specific target to reduce levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in line with WHO guidelines.

Long-term targets for other key pollutants, including NO2 and ammonia, must also be set.

Provide a long-term funding structure so local councils can deliver their duties to improve local air quality

The current Clean Air Strategy delegates too much responsibility to local authorities without sufficient resources to deliver, and without effective engagement from Government.

The Committee calls for joined-up cross-departmental Government support, incorporating departments beyond the Department for Environment, food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport.

Encouraging cycling, walking and a return to public transport

Once levels of covid-19 have fallen sufficiently, the Committee has urged the Government to launch a public communications compaign to encourage a return to transport. This includes embracing forms of active travel including cycling and walking.

While the Committee welcomes the Government's pledge to a green recovery, including the ban of the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, it urges the Government to make investments in the necessary infrastructure now.

This includes the rollout of electric vehicle charging points in rural communities and improved broadband to enable home working.

'Lead by example'

The Government should update Government Buying Standards (GBS) to ensure that only zero tailpipe emissions vehicles are procured across the public sector by 2025.

The Committee has raised concerns about whether financial stresses currently felt by public transport providers will slow their transition to cleaner vehicles.

It also calls for the Government to consider further public investment to 'maintain momentum'.

Consideration should also be given to incentivising small businesses to update transport fleets with cleaner vehicles. 

Chair's Comments

Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Select Committee, said: 

"Every year, an estimated 64,000 deaths are linked to air pollution disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities.

"In rebuilding after the pandemic, we have a moral duty to put improving air quality at its core. 

"While the Clean Air Strategy is a step in the right direction, the Government needs to be more ambitious.

"Before the Environment Bill comes back, commitments to reduce the levels of toxic particulates that cause the most harm must be strengthened—and targets on reducing the health impacts of air pollution included too. 

"We were quick to return to our old ways following the spring lockdown, with pollution levels bouncing back by the summer.

"The Government has rightly banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but we need more work to help accelerate towards a greener, cleaner future, so that commuting less and using electric vehicles more will be a real option for the majority."

Further information

Image: PA/David Jones