Feature: The UK’s proposed legal limit on PM2.5 is ‘far from world-leading’

With a public consultation underway, Air Quality News explains what the government’s proposed PM2.5 targets mean for clean air legislation in the UK, and whether they are strong enough to tackle the dangers of exposure.  

Last month, the UK government announced new targets to be included in the Environment Act 2021, including a legally binding target to reduce levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) by 2040.  

The new targets, which cover water, air quality and biodiversity, also included a 35% reduction in population exposure to PM2.5 by 2040 compared to levels in 2018.  

Exposure to PM2.5 can trigger heart attacks and strokes, increase the risk of asthma attacks resulting in hospitalization, cause lung cancer and stunt the lung growth of children. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that concentrations of PM2.5 not exceed an annual mean concentration of 5µg/m3. 

The proposed targets are currently being subjected to an eight-week consultation period, where government will seek the views of environmental groups, local authorities and stakeholders.  

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the targets are intended to set a ‘clear, long-term plan for nature’s recovery’.  

‘In a post EU era, we now have the freedom to move towards a system that focuses on nature’s recovery as well as its preservation, and which places more emphasis on science and less emphasis on legal process. This change in approach will help us in the pursuit of the targets we are setting under the Environment Act.’ 

How do the targets compare with existing legislation? 

Existing legislation, called the National Emission Ceilings Regulations, sets binding emission reduction targets for a number of harmful air pollutants through to 2030.  

The key piece of air pollution law governs emissions of harmful pollutants across a range of sectors, including transport, industry and agriculture.  

The regulations were transposed from the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive and the Gothenburg Protocol to the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.  

Following a revision of the Gothenburg Protocol in 2012 to include the first emissions reduction commitments for PM2.5, the UK’s law was updated to control levels of the harmful pollutant for the first time in the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018. 

For PM2.5, there is currently a single annual ceiling of 84.98 thousand tonnes of emissions in the UK between 2020 and 2029, set at a 30% reduction from 2005 levels.  

In 2020, the UK was compliant with this ceiling, with 80.1 thousand tonnes of PM2.5 emissions in the year.  

However, according to analysis of government data by ClientEarth, the UK is set to miss its 2030 emissions reduction target by 45% for PM2.5.  

Katie Nield, Lawyer at ClientEarth, explained: ‘They are so far off track that a serious rethink is needed. The government should not have to be dragged to the courts yet again to force it to live up to legal commitments to clean up the air.’ 

The UK’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 also set new targets to reduce people’s exposure to PM2.5, with the aim of halving the number of people living in locations above the WHO interim guideline of 10 μg/m3 by 2025.  

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Is the new target ambitious enough? 

The proposed targets to be introduced in the Environment Act have been met with widespread criticism from clean air experts. 

Non-profit legal organisation ClientEarth commented that the proposed air quality target would ‘fail another generation of children’. 

Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: ‘The target date that the UK Government is proposing is far from ‘world-leading’. It means that another generation of children will be exposed to toxic pollution far above what the world’s top scientists think is acceptable. Ministers need to seriously reconsider their proposal.’ 

Clean Air Fund also joined other campaigners in challenging the proposed targets, after a recent study from them in collaboration with Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group revealed that achieving air quality within the WHO’s interim target of 10µg/m3 is achievable and cost-effective across most of the UK by 2030.  

Director Jane Burston commented: ‘It’s astonishing Defra will make us wait to 2040 for better air quality. It means thousands of unnecessary deaths and illness from air pollution. Our research with Imperial College London showed a 2030 target is feasible with existing and proposed policies.’ 

Clean Air Fund added: ‘Around 30,000 people in the UK die every year as a result of dirty air. Committing to meet the WHO-10 target by 2030 would help us make significant strides in tackling this. Our research showed that reducing air pollution to these levels would have significant impacts on public health across the population. These changes could result in children across the UK suffering an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year, as well as a fall in cases of coronary heart disease of 3,000 per year. 

‘The government’s proposed target is attracting criticism from groups across the UK fighting against air pollution. Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who lost her daughter to the effect of air pollution said: “The government has failed the whole nation and betrayed my daughter’s memory by proposing this incredibly weak target”.’ 

In light of dangerously high levels of pollution in parts of the UK in March, UK100, the network of local leaders across the UK committed to ambitious action of clean air, argued that the government’s plan to meet WHO limits by 2040 is ‘not just lacking in ambition, [but] it is a dereliction of duty’.  

UK100’s Assistant Chief Executive Jason Torrance says: ‘The Government needs to urgently bring forward its ambition to meet WHO guidelines while matching the ambition of local authorities and giving local leaders the powers to implement regional air quality plans that mean residents can breathe easily. 

‘Action on clean air comes with added benefits. Many of the measures that will help the UK progress on cleaning up our air will also accelerate action on Net Zero, enhance our economy and improve everyone’s quality of life.’ 

Despite much anticipation surrounding the government’s proposed targets, experts have been left disappointed by the level of ambition shown by the government.  

With public consultation ongoing, individuals and organisations are encouraged to get involved and have their voices heard on the future of this important piece of clean air law.  

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Air Quality News magazine – read it in full here


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