Joining the dots between Government policies and air quality

By Dr Andy Cope,
cyclists in manchester

How effectively do Government policies take into account the health and environmental impacts of poor air quality? – asks Dr Andy Cope following Sustrans’ pioneering research which estimates the contribution of walking and cycling in reducing air pollution – and the subsequent benefits to public health.

The recent budget included the announcement of a £280 million fund to address air quality in England. Whilst this investment is very welcome, it is very modest. With 29 nine local authorities tasked with coming up with Clean Air Plans, this money won’t go far between them. It also fails to address a lack of joined-up-ness in policy relating to air quality.

Too many policy areas are set up to fail on air quality. For example:

  • Pollution policies are not effectively integrated.
  • Transport policies either disregard air quality implications or are too heavily focussed on distant-future technology-led solutions.
  • Health policies are too heavily focussed on remedial ‘cure’ work, rather than prevention.

Pollution policies are not effectively integrated

The most obvious manifestation of the failure of integrated policy is the separation of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from other air pollution types in recent review exercises and not taking into account particulate matter, PM. The failure to recognise air quality and carbon emissions reduction as being heavily interlinked presents a huge problem. The ‘silo-’ policy responses to these challenges lead to incoherent policy positions and contradictory investment priorities.

The Cost of Energy Review says:

“On other environmental objectives and targets, air quality is directly related to carbon and GHGs. The water pollution from agriculture is caused in part by land use, and the use of energy-intensive fertilisers and other chemicals, and these in turn affect the ability to sequestrate carbon. On transport there are mobility objectives, road-building programmes, airport runways, and highspeed trains, all with impacts on carbon. A key reason why our cities have violated the EU air quality requirement is that the government (and the EU) encouraged a switch from petrol to diesel. This is a way of meeting the climate change objective. But it turns out to be a bad way to meet the air quality objective – another example of non-integrated pollution policies. The absence of an environment protection agency to bring consistency to these diverse environmental challenges is a significant obstacle.” (Source: Cost of Energy Review, Oct 2017, p20).

Forthcoming consultations on a new independent, statutory body on environmental legislation to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’ are very welcome yet their impact won’t go far enough if this body is not given the means to address the challenges of pollution.

Transport policies fail to address air quality today

The fact that we have a major road building programme underway at a time when recognition of the air quality problem is higher than ever is perhaps the worst example of the failure to integrate policies. The air quality and climate change implications of these programmes will be dramatic and negative, but these impacts are barely acknowledged. When rail and airport plans are taken into the mix, the consequences could be catastrophic.

In the context of technology-led solutions to transport policies, too much hope is being placed in unproven technologies. The separation of the consideration of NOx from PMs as described above, for example, means that whilst the advent of a more electrified fleet can be lauded, the fact of the exacerbation of the PM problem that electric cars will lead to due to increased vehicle weights is disregarded. The failure to acknowledge changes in energy demand patterns are a further challenge – the fact of displacement of emissions from power generation from the tail-pipe to the power station may help in local air quality terms, but definitely presents a challenge in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Health policies are too heavily focussed on remedial ‘cure’ work, rather than prevention

All of the above maps on to public health issues in a number of ways. We have the obvious concern of poor air quality in the immediate local environments. In addition, there are the effects on public health of new road, rail and air schemes; the public health effects of global climate change; the threats to public health of technological solutions, such as the possible implications on physical activity of ‘mobility as a service’ solutions; and so on.

Fundamentally, there is a challenge in the way that health budgets are used almost exclusively for healthcare intervention. So much more could be achieved if more of these budgets were diverted to prevention work. In this case, health services could realise huge benefits from refocussing investment to prevention work to support cleaner air, e.g. supporting walking and cycling, rather than dealing with people once they have fallen victim to the afflictions of poor air.

What Sustrans is doing to help

At the heart of the concern about air quality is the fact that people are being exposed to air that is dirtier than we deserve. Reducing levels of motor traffic on the roads by improving facilities for walking and cycling is one of the best ways to reduce that exposure. Sustrans has recently released a model that can support local authorities in understanding the extent of the impact of walking and cycling schemes in reducing personal exposure to air pollution. It provides evidence that active travel spend has greater potential as preventative health spend than previously assumed.

Government has a legal responsibility to reduce exposure of its citizens to air pollution and this model helps both national and local government to see the extent to which cycling and walking projects are successful in doing just that.

Although the model will not help to resolve all of the policy issues outlined above, we hope that it will help to support effective policy development, and make a contribution to embedding better planning for walking and cycling in our towns and cities.

Find out more about the Sustrans Eunomia air quality model