With a snap general election in the offing, climate change – and in particular air pollution - looks set to feature on the agenda this time around due to a breach of EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across much of the country. In fact the UK is one of five EU countries that is persistently contravening legal nitrogen dioxide levels with factory- and vehicle-related pollution. Last November the NGO Client Earth won a High Court case against the government over its failure to tackle air pollution in the UK.
Over the past few years academics and health professionals have put forward a wealth of robust evidence looking at the impact of dirty air in our towns and cities.
Recent initiatives include London Air, a monitoring and forecasting network which works alongside local councils to show current pollution levels. Last year the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, representing some 600,000 health professionals across 15 bodies, released a report called ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ in response to their members’ concerns for the health of those living in areas with high pollution.
The alarm bells are ringing but Westminster still doesn’t seem to be listening. The European Commission has handed the UK a final warning over its repeated failure to comply with EU regulations over NO2 levels, giving just two months to show how it intends to comply or face the prospect of a further court battle in the European Court of Justice by the end of the year. Substantial fines are a distinct possibility.
In response to the growing crisis, local councils and cities across the country are beginning to tackle these issues. London had exceeded its annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017 hence the introduction of a new ‘T-Charge’ in October which will charge the most polluting private vehicles if they drive through central London.
The widening and bringing forward of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) that will charge the dirtiest vehicles across most of London is also welcome, but unlikely to come into effect until 2019 at the earliest. In the meantime, the students and children at more than 800 educational establishments across the capital are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution now.
The awarding of funding to five Low Emission Neighbourhoods (LENs) across London means that parking a diesel vehicle in Marylebone will imminently face a 50% surcharge compared to a petrol vehicle and it will be possible to fine vehicles that refuse to switch off their engines when idling.
Ashden has been searching the country for initiatives such as these to find the winner of our first ever Clean Air in Towns and Cities Award as part of the 2017 Ashden Awards. Our two shortlisted applicants, Nottingham City Council and Big Birmingham Bikes, are working tirelessly to tackle this issue in their cities, both of which have been instructed by the government to introduce Clean Air Zones by 2020, although their work to reduce local air pollution precedes the government plan.
Birmingham City Council’s Big Birmingham Bikes project has provided more than 4000 residents with a free bicycle, as well as free lessons and guided cycle rides to over 1000 people across the city. They have focused their efforts upon the neighbourhoods with the highest levels of deprivation, the very people who suffer most from poor air pollution. By working closely with local residents and more than 50 community organisations they have enabled over 200,000 miles to be cycled on the new bikes, of which at least 37,000 miles would have otherwise been made by car. In addition to reducing congestion and improving people’s mobility, health and wellbeing, the scheme is also helping to increase access to workplaces, education and training.
Nottingham City Council has had a progressive, ambitious approach to transport across the city for many years. Despite government cuts, it has expanded its work in recent years and is the first local authority in the UK to introduce a workplace parking levy. This levy charges businesses in the city for each staff car parking space, encouraging staff to use public transport instead and creating a reliable revenue stream that is ringfenced for further transport work. The money has been used in part to fund a new tram line, towards Nottingham’s fleet of electric buses (the largest in Europe), and for the expansion of an ‘Oyster-style’ smartcard to be used across the city. As a result, the city’s public transport usage is one of the highest in the country with 60 million passenger trips made last year, helping to get cars off the road and address associated air pollution.
The sustainable transport industry is starting to gain momentum around the UK. As well as city-wide projects to improve low carbon transport infrastructure and cut air pollution like those mentioned, we are also seeing the rise and rise of electric vehicles and pioneering initiatives like using waste heat from the London Underground to warm homes. With transportation currently responsible for one quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and its emissions increasing at a faster rate than any other sector, there has never been a more pressing need for sustainable transport solutions that improve both air quality and people’s lives.
Mike Snowden is a UK Programme Officer at Ashden, a charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world. The 2017 Ashden Awards Ceremony takes place on 15 June at the Royal Geographic Society with former Vice-President of the USA Al Gore as keynote speaker.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue