Environmental Targets: Air Pollution

These targets are, again, too little, too late. The Government say they want to improve human health and reduce environmental pollution and that there is some urgency to their actions, but that is absolute nonsense because they have had the opportunity to show the public that they care about the quality of our water and air and they have shown no ambition. A target was published in 2005 to meet WHO’s old air quality guideline which we now won’t meet until 2040

My speech to the House: I would have liked to have stopped the Minister several times during his opening remarks because, quite honestly, I would have liked to refute things or challenge them because they were so off-beam at times with some of the language he used. He said things such as “What would we want to snuff out?” I can give him a list and explain very clearly how we could achieve much tougher targets.

These targets make exactly the same mistakes as the targets on water that we argued over last week, which is that they are too little, too late. The Government have had the opportunity to show the public that they care about the quality of our water and air. They say they want to improve human health and reduce environmental pollution and that there is some urgency to their actions but that is absolute nonsense. I have seen no ambition in these proposed targets to reduce the thousands of premature deaths due to air pollution that this country suffers from.

The Minister said that we would restrict freedoms. What about the freedom to breathe clean air and not be ill from breathing the air in our urban spaces? That is absolutely a human right and something we could deal with. The Minister talks about restrictions but what we can do is make it easier for people to do the right thing. We can make it easy for them not to use their cars by giving them decent public transport. This is something that the Government do not seem to be able to tie up at all. They cannot see any relationship between a carrot and a stick. I know that Ken Livingstone is not held in the highest esteem any more but he really understood that and when he brought in the congestion charge, he massively improved public transport. It made a huge difference to travel patterns in London.

Lady Hayman, said she was looking for ambition. She has certainly failed to find any ambition in these targets. It is totally unacceptable that the Government are proposing to delay compliance with the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline for fine particulate matter. Of course it is a complex problem but, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out, not only road traffic but plant is responsible. We could insulate buildings, which would mean that people used less energy, for example, and therefore polluted less.

A target was published in 2005 that this country will not now hit until 2040. That is appalling, isn’t it? It is the same as with the sewage targets: putting everything back a couple of decades means that most of us will not live to see a country where we have clean air and clean water. I have no problem making sacrifices for the next generation—I do so on a daily basis—but I prefer to make sacrifices that deliver improvements while I am alive, if possible. And I am saying that it is possible, but this Government choose not to do it.

The World Health Organization has halved its guideline for PM2.5 to 5 micrograms per cubic metre. That happened over a year ago. So not only are we delaying targets; the targets we are using are already out of date. The science has moved on but this Government and this country have not.

I have a few questions. I realise that they will not be answered today but I would like them answered. I am happy to write to the Minister, but I will now read them into the record. First, are the Government taking literally the wording of Section 4(2) of the Environment Act 2021:

“Before making regulations under sections 1 to 3 which set or amend a target the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the target, or amended target, can be met”?

Doing so would mean the Government not protecting anyone until the last person in the entire country was protected from air pollution standards set in 2005. I would like clarity on that.

Secondly, what computer modelling can the Government possibly be using that shows that the UK cannot or will not achieve the WHO’s old air quality guideline until 2040? That modelling has to be out of date; it cannot possibly be anything that any of us on this side of the Chamber could have come up with.

Thirdly, are the Government aware that official modelling done for the revision of the Gothenburg protocol shows that less than 5% of the UK population would be exposed to more than 6 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 by 2030, and only 8,000 people above 7 micrograms per cubic metre? That is the baseline case.

Fourthly, are the Government aware—actually, I think the Minister did mention this—that the European Commission is proposing to comply with the old air quality guideline for PM2.5 by 2030, 10 years earlier than this Government, and that it is proposing to halve the current level for nitrogen dioxide by the same date? Where is our Brexit dividend? People will say, “I voted for Brexit. I want my dividend. Where is it in this SI?”

Instead of this nonsense and all the flannel we keep being given about targets, I ask the Government to support Ella’s Law—my Bill that would make clean air a human right. It is in the other place at the moment, and I suggest that all noble Lords on the opposite side of the Chamber lobby their friends and family to sign up to the Bill and say, “This is what would actually fix the problem we are facing.”

These targets will not fix the problem. People will suffer and die, and the Government will never hear the end of it while we few are on this side of the House.

Watch the whole debate here