It is now sixty years since the Clean Air Act became law. In 1956, the main threat was from domestic fires burning gas and coal, the smoke staining buildings black and causing lethal smogs. Now we face a new, invisible threat, not from chimney stacks but from exhaust pipes.
The facts on air pollution from nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates (PM) are shocking: tens of thousands of UK deaths each year are attributable to air pollution, and children exposed to air pollution are at risk of life-limiting health problems.
On average, transport is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx emissions at the roadside, with the largest source of emissions being diesel vehicles. What’s worse is that, given weaknesses in the testing regime, up to 95 per cent of diesel vehicles on the road are currently breaking the air pollution limits already set.
The government has produced a woefully inadequate national air quality plan, which is being contested in court. Plans to reduce air pollution to within the legal limits have a target date of 2020, meaning children born today will have started school before they have air that’s fit to breathe. The Brexit vote is no excuse for weakening vital action on dirty air that our government has agreed with others in the EU to take.
So what is the solution?
Stop building major new roads. New roads create new traffic, making existing pollution worse. Bypasses that claim to help relieve air pollution generate extra traffic at either end, and too often erode the woodlands that help absorb CO2. The billions of pounds being pumped into road building should be saved and diverted to sustainable transport. Any road spending should be focused on making existing roads better not bigger, through a green retrofit programme for major roads, and mending the nationwide pothole menace.
Tackle the freight challenge. Shifting more long distance freight onto rail would have a significant impact. HGV road journeys produce 76 per cent more CO2 than the equivalent freight by rail, 90% more PM10 and up to fifteen times more NOx. One option is to use passenger rail terminals - largely unused overnight - for night-time freight. At the delivery end, Low Emission Zones will encourage greater use of electric vehicles and local pickup points.
Invest in local sustainable transport. Communities across the country are demanding that their local authorities take action, backed by initiatives like the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy. The emerging Bus Services Bill could be a great opportunity to get cleaner vehicles as part of new local partnerships. Nottingham has pioneered the Workplace Parking Levy, with other councils, including Cambridge, looking to follow.
Sixty years on, clean buildings and clear skies are the welcome legacy of the Clean Air Act, yet our everyday air is still polluted. Every community is entitled to clean air. Campaigning for better, sustainable transport is a vital part of this.