Though it might seem easy for the UK to rest on its laurels after demonstrating significant carbon emission reductions in recent years, it’s as well to remember that carbon dioxide is not the only gas of concern for the environment and health of the population. Hammering home the risks posed by other air emissions (including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone, particulates, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead), environmental charity Global Action Plan have earmarked today - Thursday 21 June and the longest day of the year – as 2018’s Clean Air Day. More so than ever before, the UK Government is having its feet held to the fire by the likes of environmental NGO ClientEarth over consistently breaching EU-level air quality standards. These legally-binding limits seek to avoid the serious health impacts of poor air quality which in the UK cause 40,000 premature deaths every year. It is no surprise, therefore, that the UK Government has now increased its focus on more local-scale air pollutants such as Nitrous Oxides (NOx), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM), as clearly demonstrated in its Clean Air Strategy released in May this year.
Although the Strategy highlights some clear areas of improvement for the power sector, the inclusion and targeting of other emitting sectors is justified and very welcome. According to a recent study from the universities of Oxford and Bath, levels of vehicle emissions including NOx and PM air pollutants are costing the UK £6 billion a year in health damages. Internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) are estimated to be responsible for around half of total emissions of NOx in urban areas - with diesel cars and vans inflicting the worst impact.
Also welcome was the Strategy’s recognition that the combustion sector has already made substantial emissions reductions in the last 16 years. Between 2000 and 2016, the energy supply sector alone cut its SO2 emissions by 97% and NOx emissions by 83%. Over the same time period, emissions of PM were reduced significantly with emissions of PM10 and PM2.5 from the combustion industry decreasing by 92% and 72% respectively. With levels of SO2 expected to drop further still following the government’s planned phase-out of unabated coal by 2025, reducing NOx and PM emissions is where the majority of work is still needed.
Most urgently air quality measurements in some urban areas have been dangerously poor and a denser population means more people are exposed to the adverse health impacts. It is here where the transport sector has an important role to play in cutting localised roadside emissions which cause and aggravate a range of respiratory conditions. Equally, it puts pressure on Government to make stronger commitments and set higher ambitions for the phase out of ICEVs and roll out of electric vehicles over the coming years.
Although today’s Clean Air Day has a sobering message about the scale and severity of this country’s air pollution, the power sector’s progress towards meeting the UK’s decarbonisation agenda, gives us reasons to be cheerful. If, together with other emitting sectors, we can bring the same enthusiasm and level of commitment to this cause then we could also make big strides over the next decade in cleaning up this country’s air. And big strides will save lives.
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