A group of environmental lawyers who have repeatedly taken the British government to court over air pollution have said that the UK’s strategy to tackle the issue is a “shambolic and piecemeal mess.”
ClientEarth has successfully sued the government three times for inadequate — and therefore “unlawful” — action on air pollution.
Instead of national action, the UK devolves responsibility to local authorities, according to the Guardian. In 2015, five cities with the worst air pollution outside of London were ordered to produce a plan by September this year. Yet two — Derby and Southampton — missed the deadline.
And now, ClientEarth has said that Derby’s plan — including new traffic lights and the removal of a bike lane — is not only “deeply concerning,” but sets a dangerous precedent across the rest of the country.
“Their preferred option does not seem to be based on any kind of assessment of the possible impacts on air pollution in the city,” Katie Nield, a ClientEarth lawyer, told the Guardian. “From our point of view that is totally inadequate and seems to be creating more space for more cars and little else.”
In Britain, air pollution is the fourth biggest threat to public health — after cancer, obesity, and heart disease, according to the Ecologist.
Tonight the UK officially has the worst air pollution in the whole of Europe. Quite an accomplishment. pic.twitter.com/CHCXYHqgGo— :q! (@SMarr311) November 5, 2018
Basically, ClientEarth are frustrated by the lack of federal direction — and argue that leaving the problem to councils already battling budget cuts creates a chaotic landscape that won’t solve the problem.
“What we are concerned about is a lack of government leadership on this,” Nield continued. “Things are coming out in a piecemeal fashion, different schemes being put forward by different authorities of different quality, with different charging levels with different exemptions.”
“It is creating a very confusing picture and it is coming across as pretty shambolic,” she added.
These are 7 actions governments can take to reduce #AirPollution and save lives. WHO calls on governments, cities and partners to join our aspiration to reduce 2/3 of air pollution deaths by 2030. Let's #BreatheLife.https://t.co/9Nw2LSYYvupic.twitter.com/42bQgmimUa— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 7, 2018
Air pollution causes approximately 40,000 premature deaths in the UK a year, according to the Royal College of Physicians, and nearly 9,500 early deaths in London alone. Moreover, poor air quality leads to over 6 million days of annual sick leave across the country, costing £22.6 billion a year.
A new Clean Air Strategy launched by environment secretary Michael Gove in May saw a commitment to ban all new petrol and diesel by 2040. But activists called measures a “smokescreen” to avoid dealing with problems that require more urgent action.
Dr Tedros Adhanom, director general at the World Health Organisation (WHO), warned on October 27 that air pollution is the “new tobacco,” — killing 7 million people a year globally, and harming billions more.
The WHO hosted the first ever international air pollution conference on November 1, where the UK made a voluntary commitment to improve air quality with a new Environment Act next year to grant further powers to local councils.
“That is why [our air pollution measures] have collaboration at their heart, working with businesses, farmers, industry, and households, to develop innovative new solutions to reduce emissions," said Thérèse Coffey MP, under secretary of state for the environment.
"We are committed to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it,” she said.
Read More: These Are the Most Polluted Places in the UK
Meanwhile, Labour MP Mary Creagh, chair of the environmental audit committee, also described the UK government’s approach as “shambolic” after ClientEarth’s third lawsuit against them in February.
“Millions of people in the UK live with illegally high levels of air pollution,” Creagh said. “Ministers’ shambolic attempts to tackle this means this is the third time the courts have ordered the government to come up with a new plan. The government must now use every tool in the box to clean up our choking cities.”