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Clean Air Day: fundamental change is needed to tackle air pollution

Former campaigner's picture
Photo: cyclists

Air pollution is a major problem in many of our towns and cities. But with public awareness and political interest higher than at any time since the 1950s , there is the opportunity for concerted national and local action to reduce pollution and tackle congestion and carbon emissions to boot.

Tens of thousands of deaths are attributable to air pollution each year. Most towns and cities in the UK are breaking EU limits on air pollution. Moves to speed up change need to start with transport, the biggest contributor to poor air quality. 

For national government, that means bringing forward ambitious objectives to clean up our air through the upcoming Environment Bill and supporting its implementation with significantly better monitoring and support for local authorities. 

Such an approach would be a big step forward on current targets, which are not anticipated to bring pollution within legal levels until at least 2020, and not until 2025 in London. 

There are other things the Government can do, too. A ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will come into force from 2040, but bringing this forward to 2030 is not only essential in reducing carbon emissions to net zero but would bring major clean air benefits, too.

Tackling our toxic air also requires action from local government. Establishing a national network of clean air zones is imperative if we are to clean up some of the most polluted areas of our cities.  For instance, London introduced an Ultra Low Emission Zone earlier in the year which charges people driving older, more polluting vehicles to drive in the centre of the city. It’s a well-established approach, based on the principle that the polluter pays, with the revenue reinvested in clean, modern public transport. This kind of approach is not right for everywhere, but political leadership and honesty about the need for action is prerequisite for change.

Of course many people drive because there is no alternative. That’s why we need more investment in public transport, walking and cycling. Two thirds of all UK car journeys are under five miles and this is where we must look to change behaviour. In many places in the UK public transport networks are poor, forcing people to depend on their cars. We are calling for a National Bus Investment Strategy to address the decline in local bus services, grow the network and invest in a cleaner, greener fleet. Buses are the backbone of our public transport network, but for too long they have been neglected. 

Initiatives like today's Clean Air Day get people talking about air pollution, but what we now we need is more action.