Government ‘not yet on track’ to achieve air pollution reduction targets

The government has not communicated effectively with the public about air pollution, and it is ‘not yet on track’ to achieve its targets for cleaning the air, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

While emissions of most air pollutants have been falling in recent decades, poor air quality continues to damage people’s health and the natural environment.

The NAO found existing measures will not be sufficient to achieve most of the government’s 2030 air quality targets, outlined in the government’s 2019 Clean Air Strategy.

Defra told the NAO that there are challenges to reducing some air pollutants, such as particulate matter, partly because the rise of energy bills could result in greater domestic wood burning. They also noted challenges in changing agriculture practices such as fertiliser use, which has caused ammonia emissions to plateau at 2007 levels.

Defra expects to outline further measures to achieve its 2030 emissions targets in September 2022.

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In 2016, Defra established a Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) with the Department for Transport (DfT) to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the shortest time possible.

However, the NAO found the programme has progressed more slowly than expected. Government has identified 64 local authorities with potential breaches of NO2 concentration limits, with 14 of these having implemented all measures expected to bring NO2 levels within legal limits and a further 16 authorities found to be already compliant as of April 2022.

Government expected that these measures would take three years or less to implement but its information shows it is taking longer in many areas.

The NAO recommends that Defra, DfT and JAQU should review and clarify milestones for the NO2 Programme, taking into account delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Defra should also improve the accessibility of air quality information for the public.

Gareth Davies, the Head of the NAO, said: ‘Government has made progress with tackling illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution, but not as fast as expected. There are also concerns about the health risks from particulate matter, which government is finding challenging to tackle. To meet all its 2030 targets for major air pollutants, government will need to develop robust solutions quickly.

‘The public need clear information to understand why clean air measures are important and what the measures will mean in their area. Those living in the worst-affected areas ought to be able to find out when and how their air quality is likely to improve.’

Photo by Matt Boitor


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