Clean Air Strategy offers slow progress on pollution

The government has pledged to develop a ‘world-leading’ target for reducing exposure to pollution in the UK, focusing particularly on agricultural practices and wood-burning stoves. However, environmental campaigners have criticised the Clean Air Strategy for failing to take concrete new steps against transport emissions.

London skyline on a smoggy day
London skyline on a smoggy day

Smog over London

Kate Dickinson

The government’s new Clean Air Strategy offers “slow-motion progress” on the public health emergency that is air pollution, according to Green Party peer Jenny Jones.

Launched today (14 January), the Strategy sets out how the government plans to tackle air pollution across the UK, looking not only at vehicle emissions but at the pollution generated from manufacturing, food production and the way we power and heat our homes.

The key action identified in the Strategy, which comes at the end of a long consultation process, is for the government to develop a new ‘world-leading’ target to reduce exposure to particulate matter (PM), a term that refers to all the organic and inorganic particles in the air around us, including dust, pollen, soot, smoke and liquid.

Many of these particles are directly hazardous to human health, especially those with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). These are some of the smallest, lightest particles, which are thus able to stay airborne for longer, making them more likely to be inhaled. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 can cause and exacerbate a litany of health problems, including asthma, heart and lung conditions and even cancer.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 90 per cent of the population living in cities in 2016 was exposed to levels of PM that exceeded the WHO air quality guidelines. In addition, ambient air pollution (that’s outdoor air) contributed to 7.6 per cent of all deaths worldwide in 2016.

The government states that the number of people living in locations above the WHO guideline will be reduced by 50 per cent by 2025.

Levels of PM2.5 are known to be much higher at roadsides. In fact, the publication of this new Strategy comes as a new inquest has been granted into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in February 2015 of an asthma attack that was linked to unlawful levels of air pollution from London’s South Circular Road.

The government’s new target is not yet set out in the Strategy, and it states that it will ‘publish evidence early this year on what action would be needed to meet WHO guidelines.’

Baroness Jones, who put forward a Clean Air Bill to Parliament in July 2018, said she welcomed the long-term goals of meeting WHO guidelines, but added: “I’m more concerned that we are nine years behind meeting the pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide [NO2] that we set ourselves at the turn of the century.”

Under EU law and the UK’s Air Quality Strategy (2000), air quality monitoring stations are only allowed to breach hourly limits of 200 micrograms of NO2 18 times in a year. The UK government was aiming to achieve this limit by 2005, but in 2017, it took just five days for the annual limit to be broken in London.

Focus on farming and wood-burning stoves

The new Clean Air Strategy has been condemned by environmental campaigners for failing to address continued transport emissions, instead merely signposting to previous commitments, such as its July 2017 Air Quality Plan, which aims to address the NO2 problem. The plan puts much of the onus for reducing roadside emissions on local authorities, with funding committed from government to support councils to implement local plans and clean air zones.

In July 2018, the Road to Zero plan was launched, which pledges an end to the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as well as an ambition for at least 50 per cent of new cars to be ultra low emission.

Morten Thaysen, Clean Air Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Even after acknowledging the seriousness of the air pollution crisis the government is proposing nothing new to tackle pollution from road transport. Ministers are idling on confronting a key source of toxic emissions. A 2040 phase out date for diesel and petrol is effectively saying that yes, your grandchildren deserve clean air, but your children will just have to go on breathing toxic fumes so as not to disrupt the car industry's sales forecasts.”

Wood fuel burning


In the new Strategy, much attention is given to wood burners and stoves in homes, which are recognised as the single biggest source of PM emissions in the UK (producing 38 per cent of all PM2.5 emissions, compared to 12 per cent from road transport). Plans to tackle this problem include:

  • New legislation to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels;
  • Ensuring that only the cleanest stoves are on offer by 2022; and
  • New powers for local authorities to take action in polluted areas, and to increase the number of inefficient heating systems that are upgraded.

Agricultural practices – which are responsible for 88 per cent of the UK’s ammonia emissions – are also being addressed, with support pledged for farmers to invest in emission-reducing infrastructure, techniques and equipment. New regulations to limit artificial fertiliser pollution are also in the pipeline.

Too little too late?

"Air pollution is a public health emergency responsible for hundred of thousands of premature deaths, as well as sickness for children, but this new government strategy continues the same slow-motion progress of the last two decades,” said Jenny Jones.

“We need to make clean air a human right, enforceable in the courts with a Citizens' Commission providing legal support for parents and others to take action against those responsible for bad air. Until we get a new Clean Air Act that has legal teeth, then all these promises by government bodies, local authorities and car companies won't result in urgent action."

Jones’ Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill had its first reading in the House of Lords in July 2018, which was when it was introduced to Parliament; it will need to go through four more stages in the Lords before the same process is applied in the Commons.

The bill seeks to enshrine the right to breathe clean air into UK law. This could give individuals and communities the ability to take legal action when air pollution exceeds safe levels where they live. A Citizens Commission would be set up to support people wishing to take action.

You can read the Clean Air Strategy in full on the government website.