UK legal limits on small particulate matter remain four times higher than current WHO recommendations
MPs have rejected tougher air pollution limits which would have brought the UK in line with World Health Organisation guidance by 2030 and cut exposure to harmful airborne toxins.
The proposal, set out in an amendment to the government’s Environment Bill by peers in the House of Lords, followed the tragic case of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 and last year became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as their cause of death.
The amendment to the bill would have set out a new legal limit for small particulate matter (PM2.5) which is largely generated by diesel engines and woodburning stoves, but MPs voted 307 to 185 to disagree with the amendment and remove the proposal from the Bill.
Instead, the government said a public consultation will take place next year with an aim to introduce new legislation by October to tackle the problem which is estimated to kill at least 30,000 people a year in Britain.
Writing on Twitter, the foundation set up in Ella’s name, run by her mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, posted a tweet reading: “In Ella’s long battle to live she had v good days and bad ones. She’d count today as a bad day.
“The coroner and government’s own clean air advisor Sir Stephen [Holgate] couldn’t be any clearer. Sir Stephen has offered to meet the PM, this is urgent – a health crisis.”
She added: “We will continue to fight on so that all children and young people will breathe clean air.”
Ella lived close to the busy South Circular Road in south London and died following a severe asthma attack in 2013.
The inquest found that pollution from traffic made a “material contribution” to her death, and a coroner’s report released in April said the UK must set stricter air quality limits to prevent similar deaths in the future.
Though Tory MPs voted against the amendment, there is now a scramble to hold the consultation and introduce legal limits on PM2.5.
Conservative Neil Parish, who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said setting an “ambitious” air pollution target would help “drive action to meet the government’s commitment to net-zero by 2050”.
He said: “I support a binding commitment to publish a target after a full consultation, but I need to be clear that this is an urgent issue and I will continue to hold the government to account.
“October 2022 must be the absolutely last point at which we put a proper target on reducing PM2.5 into law.”
Conservative former minister Sir Bob Neill said he had a “nagging concern” about removing an amendment without putting something “firmer” in the way of action in its place, but said there needed to be an “honest conversation with the public about the sort of choices and changes that may be involved in this”.
Last month the WHO outlined major changes to its previous air pollution recommendations, published in 2005, to reflect current scientific evidence on the threat air pollution poses to human health.
The organisation slashed its original recommendations for PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in half, from an annual mean concentration of 10 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 down to 10, and for NO2, down to 10 micrograms per cubic metre from 40.
On both measures UK legal limits are currently four times higher than WHO recommendations.
During the debate Labour MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman also criticised the government’s “glacially slow movement” to legislate on air pollution.
But environment minister Rebecca Pow defended the government’s record and stressed the importance of having a public consultation.
She said: “It would be wrong to set, for example, a specific number if indeed we found that number should be lower. We [will] have a public consultation on this and we will be doing that early next year and members of the public will want to understand the health impact and what the impact will be on their lives for the measures that will be taken.”
A Defra spokesperson told The Independent: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010 – at a national level emissions of fine particulate matter have fallen by 11 per cent, while emissions of nitrogen oxides are at their lowest level since records began.
“To ensure further long-term progress, we will set stretching and ambitious targets on air quality through our Environment Bill, taking into consideration the updated WHO guidelines.
“We know this will not be easy, which is why we will hold a public consultation on the proposed targets early next year to inform the target setting process, alongside independent expert advice and analysis on a range of factors.”
Additional reporting by PA.