Interview: What does the Environment Act mean for air quality?

Editor, Pippa Neill talks to Clean Air Lawyer Katie Nield to find out what the recent Environment Act actually means for air quality. 

On November 9 2021, the long-awaited Environment Act was finally given royal assent and enshrined in law. 

The Act has widely been deemed an opportunity for the UK to control environmental protection at home, from action on air pollution, protecting the state of our rivers and reducing biodiversity loss. 

However according to Katie Nield, Clean Air Lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, the act has been a real missed opportunity.

Campaigners, scientists and politicians were all calling for the Environment Act to include action to reduce legal limits for air pollution to be in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. However, the act failed to do this. 

‘The government has missed an important and timely opportunity to commit now to reduce PM2.5 pollution to within WHO guidelines,’ Katie tells Air Quality News.  

‘The current PM2.5 and NO2 annual mean limit values in law at the moment are four times higher than the equivalent WHO guidelines. The WHO also establishes daily 24-hour mean limits for both those pollutants and we don’t have those standards at all and that ultimately means that short term pollution is being left unattended and unnoticed, despite the fact that it can obviously have huge impacts on people’s health.’

photo of black metal framed glass street post near gray concrete building during daytime

However, despite inaction in this area, Katie is keen to emphasise that the story is far from over. 

‘We can still expect new air quality targets to be set under the Environment Act but in secondary legislation,’ she explains. 

‘The Act makes it clear that the Secretary of State is under a legal obligation to set a new legally binding target for PM2.5 as well as one extra air quality target. The Act doesn’t define what that target has to be, but the government has been suggesting that they’re considering an exposure reduction target, alongside a concentration reduction target.

‘These two targets have to be set by October next year, so we can expect some public consultation in early 2022.’

However, according to Katie, these targets are not going to mean anything without a plan setting out how the government is going to meet them.

‘The commitments in the Act are very vague, but the Secretary of State is obliged to review the plan by January 31 2023, and so that’s going to mean another important consultation.’ 

The second area of change in the Environment Act is with the National Air Quality Strategy and the role of local authorities. 

‘The National Air Quality Strategy is the strategy that sets air quality standards and objectives for local authorities to follow,’ explains Katie. 

‘These standards are currently weaker than the WHO guidelines and so far they’ve also not been very effective in delivering change. But now local authorities will have to have to set action plans that outline a specific timetable of measures that they will take to secure and maintain the stance objectives.

‘But amongst this, it’s also important to make sure that these changes come with more national government support. You cannot have a situation where cash-strapped and under-resourced local authorities are locked with a problem that they don’t have the powers or money to resolve.

‘And so this new National Air Quality Strategy has got to sit alongside a strong Clean Air Strategy at a national level and a strong environmental improvement plan to deliver these targets.’

The Act also provides new regulations for vehicle recalls. This enables the Secretary of State to ask manufacturers to take vehicles off the road that are not complying with emissions standards.

According to ClientEarth, there are 8.5 million diesel vehicles on UK roads emitting NO2 pollution several times over the legal limit.

‘In the past, the government has done very little to formally require manufacturers to address this issue and to make them accountable. So this is a step in the right direction.’ 

silhouette of buildings during sunset

Despite progress expected in the next few years, it is clear that since the Act received Royal Assent, very little has changed. 

‘The government keeps referring to doing more work to assess the feasibility of its targets and I think given how long they’ve had to think about this issue that that is outstanding,’ says Katie.

‘The targets should be primarily driven by the health evidence of what’s actually necessary to protect people. The government was willing to commit to net-zero without becoming obsessed with exactly what needs to happen to achieve it, the same approach needs to be said for air quality, particularly when stalling on setting ambition is ultimately costing people their lives.’ 




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Norman Highnam
Norman Highnam
2 years ago

Transport Refrigeration units running on diesel fitted to trucks and trailers entering the ULEZ and LEZ are emitting the same as 500 Euro6 trucks as confirmed in a report completed by Transport Scotland and Zemo Partnership. Yet they are not regulated or annually tested. Emission testing and emission regulations need to apply to all Internal Combustion Engines not a select headline grabbing few only then will you see reductions across the transport and construction sectors.
The attached image – Shows the black soot lines from the diesel engine used to run the fridge fitted to the truck. No DPF filters no adblue systems just diesel fumes and PM. The Forgotten Emitters.

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