Air quality: A follow up report - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

2 The current situation

Health effects

8.  A range of significant findings on the health risks of air pollution have emerged since the previous Committee reported. In December 2010, the Committee on the medical effects of air pollution (COMEAP), the Government's advisory body on this issue, published a report on the Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the UK[12]. This presented the results of calculations of mortality in 2008. The burden of particulate air pollution (specifically PM2.5) was estimated to be an effect equivalent to about 29,000 deaths, or a loss of life expectancy from birth of 6 months. COMEAP speculated that it was reasonable to consider that air pollution may have made at least some contribution to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people (the number dying of cardiovascular causes) with an average loss of life of about two years. COMEAP also reported, in November 2010 that, as well as exacerbating asthma in those already having the condition, air pollution might also play a role in the induction of new cases of asthma amongst those living close to busy roads with a lot of lorry traffic.[13]

9.  Aphekom, a European research project co-funded by the European Commission, reported its findings in 2011. It estimated that exceeding WHO guidelines for exposure to fine particulate matter in 25 European cities with a total of 39 million inhabitants resulted in health costs of €31.5 billion a year. The study also concluded that those living near main roads in cities could account for some 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease in adults 65 years of age and older. Aphekom further estimated that 15-30 per cent of exacerbations of these illnesses are attributable to air pollution.[14] Research has also shown, that in the very short-term, poor air quality can increase the risk heart attack in those susceptible.[15]

10.  Initial findings of research by Imperial College and environmental research groups in the Netherlands suggest that poor air quality is hitting the poorest hardest. That research is examining the associations, at a local level, between air pollution and socio-economic groups. Preliminary findings for the Netherlands, presented in September 2011, indicated that pollution levels increased with higher degrees of urbanization, higher numbers of non-western immigrants and lower house prices;[16] while preliminary results for England indicated that poor air quality is associated with areas of low income, low employment and low educational attainment, with differences in exposure to air pollution between different ethnic groups. Several other studies have also shown that elevated levels of pollution are concentrated amongst socially deprived neighbourhoods.[17]

11.  The main cost of air pollution arises from these adverse health effects on people. Defra's Air Quality Strategy estimates that the health impact of man-made particulate air pollution experienced in the UK in 2005 cost between £8.5 billion and £20.2 billion a year. These figures were calculated by the Interdepartmental Group on Costs and Benefits (which includes Defra, the Department of Health and the Department for Transport) using a survey of people's willingness to pay for avoiding the adverse health effects of air pollution.

12.  In our current inquiry Defra told us that substantial progress has been made in quantifying and understanding the health and ecosystem impacts of air pollution as a result of recent reports from COMEAP and Defra's publication of the National Ecosystems Assessment, which puts values on ecosystems services.

Environmental Damage

13.  Air pollution also causes significant damage to the environment. Our predecessor Committee reported that ozone reduces the yield of wheat grown in southern Britain by 5-15%.[18] Sixty percent of sensitive habitats exceed the critical load for nitrogen, of which atmospheric pollution is a major cause. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage told us that oxides of nitrogen (NOX) harms UK biodiversity and is compromising our ability to deliver current conservation commitments such as the objective to achieve favourable conservation status under the Habitats Directive.[19]

EU Targets

14.  European policies aim to improve air quality by reducing exposure to air pollution. The EU sets legally binding concentration limit values for specific air pollutants, which are also reflected in the UK's national air quality objectives. The UK is still not meeting EU limit values or UK objectives for PM10 particulate matter and NO2 and is predicted by some to fail to meet targets for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).[20]

Particulate matter

15.   Since 2005 the UK has reported exceeding PM10 limit values in 8 zones, though these are now only exceeded in London. In April 2009 the Government submitted an application to seek exemption, as provided under EU law, from the obligation to comply with PM10 targets until 2011.[21] The application was accepted. Under European Union air quality laws daily pollution levels of PM10 must not be above the legal limit on more than 35 days in a year. The Campaign for Clean Air in London reported that by 21 April London had already exceeded this target for 2011; the worst performance in 8 years.[22]

16.  The now-extended deadline for commencing compliance with the EU limit values for PM10 was 11 June 2011. A number of short term measures have been introduced at 'hot spots' in London to reduce PM10 levels and achieve EU targets, while longer-term measures in the Mayor's Air Quality Strategy are being implemented. These short-term measures include re-routing the most polluting buses and spraying roads with adhesives to suppress particulate matter.[23] Despite these measures PM10 daily limit values are still being exceeded (at the time of publication 48 exceedences had been reported).[24] There is still much to be done to resolve the situation in London. The Olympics Delivery Authority has made a commitment to holding the greenest Olympics ever, but we note that it is proving difficult to for the Mayor to make the required policy trade-offs and achieve acceptable levels of air quality. We welcome Defra's consultation to invite views on the short-term measures that have been adopted in London, but the fact that these measure have had to be used clearly indicates that air quality is not being addressed in the long-term. Further measures must address the causes of air pollution and must be more credible than spraying the roads with adhesive.

17.  EPUK told us that to date little attention has been given by the Government to 2020 targets for PM2.5.[25] A recent report, PM2.5 in the UK, by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER) concluded that the challenge of meeting PM2.5 targets is greater than previously anticipated, and that control strategies for PM2.5 may need to be significantly different to those used for PM10 and that further research is required to understand all its sources. [26]

Nitrogen dioxide

18.  Defra regard meeting EU limits for NO2 in areas exceeding targets as presenting a much more significant challenge than PM10, requiring additional action to limit emissions from transport in many urban areas across the UK.[27] The limits for NO2 came into force in January 2010. For 2010 40 of the 43 UK air quality assessment zones did not achieved compliance.[28] On 9 June 2011 Defra launched a consultation on an application under EU law to postpone the compliance date for NO2 limits until 2015. As Client Earth and the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management pointed out, Defra's consultation document shows that compliance will not be achieved in 17 of 43 zones by 2015, even under a best case scenario. As such, they argued, it would be difficult to see how an extension could be granted, and Client Earth is now seeking judicial review of the Government's application.[29] The 30 air quality plans for England were amended following the consultation and, along with 10 plans covering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, were submitted with the application for an extension to the European Commission on 26 September 2011.

19.  Some organisations have suggested that the Government is hoping that the EU will reduce limit value thresholds for NO2 on the back of pressure from the UK and other Member States that are also failing to meet targets. An EU review of air quality legislation is required by 2013.[30] The Minister did not accept that the Government were hoping that EU limits would be "watered down", but conceded that:[31]

We still would like to get there but I think it is very unlikely. Therefore, we need to negotiate with the Commission about where we are going, how we are going to get there and what the timescale should be [...]

20.  EU limit values are health-based standards set by Technical Working Groups of international experts set up by the European Commission, and are consistent with WHO guidance. Since these values were set, the evidence base for the health effects of poor air quality has grown rather than weakened. As such we can see no circumstances in which a delay in achieving these targets or a lessening of these targets would be acceptable. Any delay or lessening would simply put more lives a risk. We see a case for arguing that fines would not be appropriate if the means for delivering them is not available, but this case has not yet been adequately made. The Government must set out how it intends to achieve EU targets. It must say, in its response to this report, whether or not it intends to push for less stringent targets when air quality legislation is reviewed in 2013. Its apparent tactic of avoiding EU fines by applying for extensions to limit value targets, with an expectation that target values will be diluted in the near future, is putting the health of UK residents at risk.

21.  Applications for compliance extensions which lack sufficient policy measures to back them up could result in unlimited fines from the European Commission. The Government must now embark on a strategy that aims to achieve air quality targets.

22.  Defra's consultation for an extension to meet EU NO2 limit values states that Greater London compliance is not expected to be achieved before 2025.[32] EU air quality limits for NO2 are not met at Heathrow and the surrounding area. DfT recognises that aircraft engine emissions, airport operations and road transport to and from airports contributes to NO2 pollution near airports.[33] In the event of a third runway being developed at Heathrow, compliance with NO2 limits would be impossible. The Government has made clear their opposition to a third runway at Heathrow and BAA announced in May 2010 that it had stopped work on a planning application for such a proposal. However, for the Government to make the case that compliance with EU air quality limits throughout Greater London will be maintained beyond 2015, their application for an extension to meet EU limit values, the forthcoming Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation and the forthcoming Aviation National Policy Statement must contain an explicit prohibition of a third runway at Heathrow.

12   COMEAP, The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom, 2010 Back

13   COMEAP, Does Outdoor Air Pollution Cause Asthma?, 2010 Back

14  Back

15  Back

16   Fischer P, de Hoogh K, Marra M, Kruize H, Hoek G, Beelen, Vienneau D, Briggs D. Associations Between Small Area Levels of Air Pollution and Socio-Economic Characteristics in the Netherlands and England (Abstract). Epidemiology 2011. In press Back

17   Goodman A, Wilkinson P, Staffor M, Tonne C, Characterising socio-economic inequalities in exposure to air pollution: A comparison of socio-economic markers and scales of measurement. Health & Place 2011;17:767-774

Briggs D, Abellan J, Fecht D, Environmental inequity in England: Small area associations between socio-economic status and environmental pollution. Social Science & Medicine 2008;67:1612-1629 Back

18   HC (2009-10) 229 Back

19   Ev w 8 Back

20   Defra, Air Pollution in the UK 2010: Compliance Assessment Summary, 2011& Ev 29 Back

21   HC (2009-10) 229, para 12 Back

22  Back

23   Ev w 52 Back

24   London Air Quality Network Results of Air Quality Strategy Objectives for PM10 for 2011.  Back

25   Q 4 Back

26   SNIFFER,PM2.5 in the UK, 2010  Back

27   Ev 45 Back

28   Ev w 55;, Ev w 43; ,Defra, Air Quality Plans for the achievement of EU air quality limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the UK, 2011 Back

29  Back

30  Back

31   Q 60 Back

32   Defra, Air Quality Plans for the achievement of EU air quality limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the UK, 2011 Back

33   DfT, Developing a sustainable framework for UK aviation, 2011 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 November 2011