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UK government launches an ambitious new Clean Air Strategy

In the United Kingdom (UK), Environment Secretary Michael Gove has launched what is described as "an ambitious new strategy" to tackle air pollution and save lives. Air pollution is rated as the fourth largest public health threat in the UK - behind only cancer, obesity and heart disease - and the measures set out in the Clean Air Strategy will cut the costs of air pollution to society by GBP1.7 billion (≈ EUR 1.9 billion) per year by 2020, rising to GBP5.3 billion (≈ EUR 5.9 billion) from 2030.

The UK will set an ambitious, long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter (PM), which the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified as the most damaging pollutant. To inform the development of this new target, the government will publish evidence early this year on what action would be needed to meet WHO guidelines.

The evidence is clear. While air quality has improved significantly in recent years, air pollution continues to shorten lives, harm our children and reduce the quality of life. We must take strong, urgent action. Our ambitious strategy includes new targets, new powers for local government and confirms that our forthcoming Environment Bill will include new primary legislation on air quality, said Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

This comes on top of a commitment to halve the number of people living in areas breaching World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on PM by 2025.

On January 14, 2019, the UK government launched its Clean Air Strategy to tackle air pollution with air quality goals based on World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. This includes measures to reduce emissions of particulate matter (PM). Domestic burning of solid fuels in stoves and open fireplaces has emerged as the single biggest source PM in the UK.

The UK is the first major economy to adopt air quality goals based on WHO recommendations, going far beyond EU requirements.

Air pollution kills 7 million people globally every year, making it one of the largest and most urgent threats to global health of our time, I applaud the United Kingdom’s Clean Air Strategy, which will not only help to protect the health of millions of people, but is also an example for the rest of the world to follow, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO.

Strategy congruence

The Clean Air Strategy ties in with the Industrial Strategy that aims to put the UK at the “forefront of low carbon innovation” by supporting investment in clear air innovations. This includes a GBP19.6 million (≈ EUR 22.1 million) joint research programme in partnership with UK Research and Investment (UKRI) to promote the development of cleaner technologies funded by the modern Industrial Strategy.

While air pollution may conjure images of traffic jams and exhaust fumes, transport is only one part of the story and the new strategy sets out the important role all of us – across all sectors of work and society – can play in reducing emissions and cleaning up our air to protect our health. With a commitment to end the sale of conventional new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040, the UK is going further than almost every other European nation in tackling emissions from cars. But air pollution does not just come from transport and the Clean Air Strategy sets out a programme of work across government, industry and society to reduce emissions coming from a wide range of sources, said Secretary Gove.

Target residential space heating

Residential heating is one sector being targetted. Following a recent increase in popularity, domestic burning of solid fuels in stoves and in open fireplaces has emerged as the single biggest source of particulate matter (PM) emissions.

Air pollution is a health issue: it harms the health of the nation. For each of us, our health is unavoidably shaped by the environment we live in. Environmental factors determine around 30 percent of our healthy life expectancy. Air pollution poses the single greatest environmental threat to human health. Breathing dirty air is associated with a host of health problems, from asthma to cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, and all too often it is the most vulnerable – children, older people and those from poorer backgrounds – who are hit hardest. In short: clean air helps you live longer, said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Addressing this the strategy will:

  • introduce of new legislation to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels
  • ensure that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022
  • continue to explore how we can give local authorities powers to increase the rate of upgrades of inefficient and polluting heating appliances
  • bring existing smoke control legislation up to date, and make it easier to enforce

Tackle ammonia from agriculture

Agriculture is responsible for 88 percent of UK emissions of ammonia gas which can travel long distances, be damaging to the environment, and combine with other pollutants to form fine PM pollution.

Ammonia emissions can have a significant impact on the environment and on our health, and as custodians of the land, farmers have an important role to play in reducing them. Our future agriculture policy will involve financial rewards and incentives to help farmers reduce their ammonia emissions, said Farming Minister, George Eustice.

Under the new strategy, the government will provide farmers with support to invest in infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions and will work with industry to encourage low emission, holistic farming techniques. This includes:

  • supporting farmers to invest in infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions
  • introducing regulations to require farmers to use low emission farming techniques
  • introducing regulations to minimise pollution from fertiliser use

In September 2018 the Government launched a new GBP3 million (≈ EUR 3.4 million) programme through the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) partnership to fund a team of specialists who work with farmers and landowners in priority areas to provide training events, tailored advice, individual farm visits and support with grant applications.

The Agriculture Bill already sets out how future financial support for the farming sector will be focussed on delivering improvements to the environment and the Government proposes that a future environmental land management system should fund targeted action to protect habitats impacted by ammonia.

The government will shortly bring forward an Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill which will include primary legislation on air quality, last updated in the historic Clean Air Act of 1993.

Ground level ozone, not to be confused with the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, is not directly emitted but is formed in the atmosphere from emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) from vehicles, organic compounds from solvent use, and methane (CH4) from agriculture.

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