Air Clean Up

  • Should We Follow Canada's Example for Air Pollution Laws?

Should We Follow Canada's Example for Air Pollution Laws?

Sep 07 2019 Read 181 Times

With pressure mounting on the UK government to stop paying lip service to environmental awareness and actually introduce concrete measures to tackle air pollution, outgoing Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced plans earlier this year to bring UK air regulations into line with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Since many campaigners had been concerned that the UK’s imminent departure from the EU would allow the government to dispense with the air quality legislation that has cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of fines and several court cases, Gove’s statement was a very welcome one. Especially since WHO guidelines are actually stricter than those followed by the EU.

However, there is a danger that focusing efforts on improving air quality and reducing transport-related pollution on one single area – like the particulate matter (PM) laws that Gove was referring to – could lead to unforeseen consequences in other areas. Perhaps a better solution would be the more holistic approach favoured by Canada, which ensures air quality is bolstered across the board.

Unwanted side-effects

Any efforts to reduce air pollution should be welcomed, but not unconditionally. Sometimes initiatives to bring down emissions in one part of the country can simply lead to them increasing in another. One such example can be seen in the case of London’s public transport network, which has undergone serious reformation in recent years.

All buses under operation of Transport for London (TfL) were forced to meet Euro IV standards by the end of 2015, leading to many of them being replaced or upgraded. This had an almost immediate impact on the surrounding air quality; in many of the city’s most polluted districts, such as Oxford Street, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations fell by half. However, at the same time, other parts of London saw a concurrent rise in air pollution as a result of the legislation.

Something similar can also be observed further afield. In northern India, for example, water conservation measures actually increased air pollution, because delaying harvests meant that the climate was less suitable for dispersing contaminants once farmers came to burning crop stubble.

Playing the long game

In this way, it’s clear that everything is interconnected and that directing resources and efforts at one particular problem or in one particular zone can have unforeseen and unwanted consequences in another. With that in mind, it might be an idea for the British government to take a leaf out of the Canadian playbook.

Unlike in Britain, Canada does not have fixed targets for its cities and towns to meet. Instead, each locality has a responsibility to continually improve the air quality in their area, even if it already meets the thresholds agreed upon by the government. Through the implementation of sophisticated air quality monitoring networks, Canadian authorities and citizens alike can keep tabs on air pollution levels in their area, facilitating better understanding of where improvements are needed.

Britain should aspire to emulate this approach, consistently gathering and disseminating air quality information through open-source platforms and setting itself year-on-year targets for individual boroughs and zones. This would allow politicians and the people they represent to see at a glance how much progress is being made and where tweaks are required to ensure that no area is left behind.

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