The UK must stop flouting international law and take air pollution seriously

Geraint Davies is the Labour MP for Swansea West and author of the Clean Air Bill. He is Vice-Chair of the Air Quality APPG and a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. Geraint writes exclusively for Air Quality News ahead of the Bill’s second reading in Parliament later this month.

The UK has been given until next Friday to show how it will comply with EU air pollution laws, which underlines why a Clean Air Act is urgently needed.

Clean air plans put forward by ministers have twice been declared illegal, and are awaiting the verdict in a third case heard last week, in its failure to cut air pollution in the “shortest time possible” as EU law requires.

Geraint Davies, the Labour MP for Swansea West has presented his Clean Air Bill in Parliament

The EU is calling for “drastic measures” to avoid a European Court of Justice referral. Considering the yearly cost of inaction; estimated at 40,000 premature deaths caused by pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide; and £20 billion to the economy, according to the Royal College of Physicians, there is no time to delay.

The devastating effects of exposure to high levels of air pollution are far reaching. They include problems with the respiratory and cardiovascular system; asthma and brain damage in children; miscarriage and premature births; and have more recently been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

London has already exceeded its legal air pollution limit for 2018, although not quite as early as in the previous eighteen years thanks to the Mayor’s commitment to tackling the issue; with greener busses in pollution hotspots that has led to massive reductions in emissions, and a further pledge to double funding for air quality.

It’s not enough for the government to talk of banning new diesel and petrol car production in more than 20 years by which time a further million people will have died prematurely. Action is needed now to respond to the crisis and to comply with European law.

Brexit

Fears that environmental legislation will be put on the backburner and then watered down are well-founded. The recent whistle-blowing of the government’s Brexit Economic Analysis reveals that deregulation of environmental standards is presented as an opportunity not a threat for the UK after leaving the EU. So outside the EU, the government will no longer have to adopt ambitious targets, and won’t be legally obliged to meet them.

That’s why I’m pressing forward with the Clean Air Bill, which I presented last year supported by the Royal College of Physicians and Unicef. The Bill would extend low-emissions zones, ensure proper testing for vehicles and a fiscal strategy that invests in sustainable transport like electric trams and rewards drivers of cleaner vehicles. We need a financial settlement where car manufacturers, some of whom have cheated the system, pay substantially towards the social and environmental cost of their actions. We need to invest in electric buses and trams for all our city centres and diesel duty should be raised below the rate of inflation to help pay the cost.

Economics

Drivers and manufacturers are getting the message: diesel car sales have fallen when compared to petrol. The Bill also includes provisions to combat air pollution caused by rail, maritime and aircraft.

We need to promote an economic environment in which companies know the UK is open to green investment which rapidly supports our economy, public health and meeting our UN sustainable development goals.

The Clean Air Acts of 1956 followed 12,000 deaths in one year due to the Great London Smog but now, every year, London suffers 10,000 premature deaths of the 40,000 national death toll, inflicted by invisible diesel pollution.

Sixty one years after its predecessor, my Clean Air Bill has cross-party support and provides the blueprint for the Government to fulfil its most basic duty to protect its citizens. We must not let Brexit be used to avoid our most crucial obligations but instead legislate to ensure that our children can look forward to a clean bill of health.

Geraint’s Clean Air Bill is expected to be debated next in Parliament on 23 February.