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UK reaches air pollution limit

UK reaches legal air pollution limit as ministers attend emergency air quality meeting in Brussels
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Greenpeace billboard in Brixton, London. Photo Will Rose

The UK reached its annual air pollution limit just one month into the year, and for the eighth year in a row, at 8am on 30 January.

To mark the moment, Greenpeace creatively subverted hundreds of billboards across the UK with illustrations of people holding placards that read ‘Diesel is breaking limit’ (main image, photo Will Rose).

Emergency meeting on air quality

Under EU rules, any single location in the UK is only allowed to breach hourly limits of 200 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air 18 times in a year. Yesterday morning Brixton Road reached that limit and is expected to break it again today.

The reaching of the legal limit coincided with a closed-door emergency meeting called by EU environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, in Brussels. Environment minister Thérèse Coffey will attend.

The meeting was called to provide a ‘last opportunity’ for countries, including the UK, to show the steps being taken to redress breaches of legal air pollution limits, otherwise the Commission has stated it will make a referral to the European Court of Justice.

A poor track record

In 2016 it took eight days for the UK to violate its annual air pollution limit – last year it took just five days.

This year, it took a month for the UK to reach the limit in any single location. This could be down to the London Mayor’s work to reduce diesel pollution, by introducing a t-charge and cleaner buses on the most polluted routes, but it may also have been delayed by bad weather seen throughout January, causing pollution to dissipate more quickly.

Last week the government faced a further High Court hearing brought by ClientEarth over its persistent failure to deal with air pollution.

While being most acute in London, illegal levels of air pollution are a problem across the UK. 37 of the UK’s 43 air quality zones don’t meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits, all of which should have fallen within safe limits by 2010.

The impact of air pollution is particularly acute for children. High exposure to polluted air at a young age can cause chronic health problems that last a lifetime, with research showing negative effects for lung function, respiratory issues like asthma and even stunted lung growth.

‘This event is now an annual spectacle highlighting government’s abject failure to tackle the toxic air cloaking our towns and cities. Thérèse Coffey has a lot of explaining to do at today’s meeting, facing questions on air pollution breaches on the very day the UK air is about to hit illegal levels.

‘The government could make a real difference very quickly by replicating London’s evidence-led approach across the country, and yet it still advocates clean air zones only as a last resort. Funding should be made available for local authorities to put clean air zones in place now, and the UK’s phase-out date for diesel and petrol cars should be 2030, not 2040.’

Clean air campaigner at Greenpeace

Diesel cars and air pollution

Levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide air pollution in the UK have broken legal limits every year since 2010 – and diesel vehicles are responsible for 90% of toxic NOx coming from roads. In total, the health impacts of air pollution in the UK are estimated to cost the UK more than £20 billion every year.

The UK government and auto industry hailed the recent introduction of so-called ‘real-world’ emissions tests as the solution to the air pollution crisis. Yet a Greenpeace investigation revealed the new tests may not stop vehicles from polluting over the legal limits when driven in urban traffic where most exposure takes place.

The new testing regime has also been criticised for being watered down, and allowing new diesel cars to produce more than double the original legal limit for the first four years of the regime.

Banning diesel cars

In the UK the government’s clean air plan confirmed the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned in 2040 but refused to legislate for more ‘clean air zones’ that would charge the dirtiest vehicles to enter some of the UK’s most polluted cities.

The Netherlands announced it intends to ban all diesel and petrol cars by 2030, while Norway aims for all new passenger cars to be zero-emission by 2025. Paris recently announced it will ban all petrol and diesel cars from the city by 2030, and Copenhagen plans to ban diesel cars from 2019.

In September Greenpeace launched a campaign targeting Dieselgate protagonist VW’s continued promotion of polluting diesel by blocking major import route bringing Volkswagen diesel cars into the UK.

More than 50,000 people have joined the campaign calling on Volkswagen to ditch diesel.

Click here for more on the online tool that lets you check air quality in any European town or city.

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