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Air Quality in the UK – Effecting Positive Change

Recent coverage of poor air quality across areas of the UK and London in particular, served to reinforce the growing concern amongst the media and public alike about the ill-effects that air pollution is having on our health. This follows November’s High Court ruling that the UK Government must revise its national air quality plan and timetable to reduce pollution to acceptable levels.

 

Air quality problems and associated health effects are centred within urban populations, primarily driven by the increasing number of diesel and petrol vehicles on our roads that directly release and indirectly contribute to the formation of pollutants in the lower atmosphere. However, the contribution of other pollution sources such as domestic wood burning and the trans-boundary migration of emissions from the European continent should not be underplayed.  

So where does the key lie to effecting air quality improvements throughout the UK?

At the international level, the vehicle emissions limits that car manufacturers must meet are becoming more stringent, but confidence in this process needs to be restored in light of recent shortcomings. Positive steps are being made by the EU to revise the national emissions ceilings directive across a number of countries to help tackle the issue of trans-boundary pollution, which could benefit the UK even in a post-Brexit existence.

From a national perspective, the UK Government has signed up to the Zero Emissions Vehicle Alliance, with the aim of ensuring nearly all new cars and vans release zero emissions by 2050. Government funded grants are available to encourage the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) and for businesses to convert their commercial fleets to electric models. Sales of ULEVs are on the up; albeit representing a modest 5% share of the new vehicle market as it stands, with new diesel car purchases showing signs of decline.  

On a regional and local scale, greater onus is being placed on air quality impacts associated with new developments. This is where we – working on behalf of private or public sector clients – assess potential air quality impacts and recommend cost-effective solutions to negate or minimise emissions associated with development. Emissions associated with vehicle movements, decentralised energy generation, and exposure of sensitive receptors form key considerations. The involvement of air quality professionals from as early as the design concept provides the opportunity for developers to incorporate measures that align with local authority air quality planning and regional low emission strategies.  

Local authorities are also set to introduce Clean Air Zones to a number of towns and cities throughout the UK before 2020, which are aimed at encouraging entry of only the ‘cleanest’ vehicles, and will implement a number of additional measures to encourage transport alternatives to reduce vehicle emissions.

Clearly, measures are being put in place to facilitate air quality improvements. Some may argue that these changes are not happening fast enough… but let’s not underestimate the type of challenges at hand;

  • effective national and international political collaboration;
  • significant business co-operation and direction shifts;
  • large-scale vehicle manufacturing modifications;
  • government funding constraints; and,
  • achieving sustainable development within growing urban populations and demands for natural resource consumption.

Ultimately, the key to effecting positive change may be the rate of change in our own individual and collective behaviours towards making conscious choices that contribute to lowering emissions. There has to be a level of “buy-in” to these national initiatives and incentives, such as making our next car purchase an ULEV instead of diesel, planning our daily travel in a more sustainable manner, or heating our homes in the most energy efficient manner available to us. 

Varying pay scales and costs of living will limit change, and with deprived areas more likely to experience the effects of poor air quality, the widespread shift in cultural behaviours required to improve air quality across the UK will be a gradual process.

Damian Pawson, Technical Manager – Air Quality at Mouchel

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