Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the impact of air and water pollution on the environment and public health.
My Lords, we know that air and water pollution are killers, but the recently published Lancet commission finding that more than 50,000 UK deaths are attributable to pollution each year—now, in the 21st century—really is a shocking statistic. Of those UK deaths, more than 28,000 are linked to air pollution and over 3,000 to water pollution. As well as the deaths that pollution causes, it drastically affects the quality of life. My noble friend Lady Walmsley will no doubt expand on that.
Over recent decades, the main reason that successive Governments have cleaned up air and water is that the EU has championed a cleaner environment. The ambient air quality directive sets legally binding limits of major air pollutants that impact public health, such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Despite this, the UK Government have made little effort in this area so in February 2017, the European Commission gave the UK a final warning over its failure to meet air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide. Thus, after years of inaction, the Government published their air quality plan but that delay has cost us dearly. My noble friend Lady Jolly will detail the severe costs in terms of health, heart and respiratory diseases and so on that that delay induced.
The public are paying with their health, with costs to the NHS, yet the UK Government still provide billions of pounds of public funds to subsidise the domestic production and consumption of fossil fuels—some £6 billion per year domestically and some £3.5 billion abroad, according to a report last month from the Overseas Development Institute. By contrast, the Green Alliance has found that due to renewable energy funding cuts, clean energy investment will fall by 95% over the next three years. Greg Clark has launched his green growth strategy to lead the world in fighting climate change, but at the same time the Chancellor has announced a new £5 million fund for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, hoping to find another 10 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil. That seems pretty contradictory.
Of course, car manufacturers are well ahead of the Government here. They are well on the way to planning how to phase out fossil fuel-only cars. I think my noble friend Lord Strasburger will be talking about that. I am sure he shares my frustration that the Government have passed so much of the responsibility for cleaning up city air to local authorities, without introducing in parallel a high-polluting vehicle scrappage scheme, which many city leaders have requested. I know my noble friend Lady Randerson will outline the challenges and explain what a Liberal Democrat green transport scheme would contain.
The health impacts of water pollution will prove to be much more serious than we realise. One threat is from relatively new compounds. An example is microplastic contamination, which has been found in 72% of tap water samples in Europe. I commend the Government on starting to address this matter, because it is very urgent. They intend to ban cosmetic microplastics. The Microbeads Coalition, which includes Greenpeace, has said:
“The ban announced by the UK government is world-leading in its ambition to successfully put a stop to this source of marine pollution”.
But I must say, shame on the cosmetics industry for lobbying against the ban in Brussels. I must also commend the Government on the UK signing up to the UN Environment clean seas campaign and making various voluntary commitments on marine protected areas, including in our overseas territories.
Another threat from new materials is well outlined in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s POSTnote on nanomaterials:
“Engineered nanomaterials may end up in lakes, rivers, oceans, aquatic sediments and soils. When nanomaterials enter water, they tend to aggregate together ... So far, most studies into the effects … on aquatic life ... suggest that nanomaterials can reduce growth, reproduction, locomotion, breathing and feeding”.
That is pretty much life itself. There is a caveat: that the studies so far,
“used higher concentrations of nanomaterials than current predicted exposure levels”,
but nanomaterials are a very real danger. Will the Minister tell the House what further research into this the Government are intending to do? Nanomaterials accumulate at the bottom of the food chain and food crops can absorb them, so there are a number of threats.
I now turn to the main causes of water pollution besides new materials and how we can tackle them. The first is sewage. There are still 31,000 combined sewer overflows in the UK. As soon as there is heavy rain, these sewers discharge untreated human sewage into our rivers. Failure to implement much-needed sustainable urban drainage systems has cost us and our environment dearly. A question really sticks in my mind: what do you get if you mix a gallon of sewage with a gallon of storm water? The answer is two gallons of sewage—it is fairly obvious. The question comes from the city manager of Philadelphia in the US, which has become a model of how to build green infrastructure to deal with the issue. It had old Victorian sewers too, but in 2000 it began to plan 19 square miles of green infrastructure to cope with 9 billion gallons of sewage: rain gardens, porous pavements, lots of trees, and green roofs in public and private spaces. Everyone is signing up to it. We had a presentation on that in this House, so there was a chance for the Government at that time to take up the idea, but instead they did nothing. London faced a similar issue. Storm water was washing into the Thames. It is only as a result of my noble friend Lady Ludford’s petition that proceedings have resulted in the 25 km storm tunnel which will start to deal with this issue. Our cities need to take a leaf out of Philadelphia’s book.
The second source of pollution in water is agricultural. Many products are used on farmland for good reason, for example nitrogen and phosphates, but become pollutants once they wash into water. Besides encouraging minimal input use—precision farming, organic farming and so on—what else could be done? South West Water has taken a positive approach and found that reducing pollution at source, rather than treating water downstream, has a truly surprising benefit-cost ratio of 65:1. Its upstream thinking programme supports farmers who are upstream of key water supplies with grants and advice, so that they can manage their business with clean water and a healthy natural environment in mind.
Clearly, any future farming support must be linked to a clean record, but Brexit poses a risk of actually increasing agricultural water pollution. Why? Removing slurry costs farmers about £12.50 a tonne, and if all of a sudden common agricultural policy subsidies go, farmers will be unable to afford clean-up schemes while transitioning to a more positive way of dealing with this, such as the example I have just cited. There is also a danger that any pollution may go unchecked post Brexit if the Government continue to view reporting requirements as an example of technical requirements that they want to get rid of. The impact assessment lists reducing reporting requirements as a potential cost saving. That is totally wrong. British citizens have every right to know whether the state of their environment is a source of danger to their health. I urge the Government to maintain the reporting requirements and the bodies necessary to do that.
What do we need from the Government in the short term to tackle some of these issues? Next year’s review of the national planning policy framework would be a good start. The Government could choose to introduce effective planning requirements for sustainable drainage systems that tackle the sewage situation. I am sure the Minister appreciates that a new agricultural policy whereby land is a crucial part of a newly recognised green infrastructure would be a major part of addressing this need to clean up our water. A commitment must be made to match spending on farm support, while ensuring that the public goods element of any support expands, and the idea that you just bring in some land and get support for it is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, water legislation has been knocked on to the back burner by Brexit. We should by now have had a review of the licensing system for water abstraction and permitting for sewage overflows, but they have both been heavily delayed by Brexit. Brexit leaves little time and no political space to tackle these basic, crucial issues of everyday life.
I end with a plea. If Brexit does happen, we will seek to ensure that the Government continue with environmental reporting requirements, with no cancellation of reporting as a “technical requirement” or seeing it as a cost-saving measure. We will need measures in place to ensure that we continue actually to clean up our air and water. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful, as we all are, to the noble Baroness for securing this debate. It is the second time that we have discussed air pollution in a few months; the last debate, on 3 July, was introduced by my noble friend Lord Borwick, who I am glad to see in his place. I am particularly grateful that the noble Baroness included water in this debate, which is important. However, I would say to her that I was sad she was a little negative. There are plenty of positives to be taken from what has happened, which I shall mention.
To me, pollution is anything that is toxic, harmful or a nuisance. As a result, pollution is not a simple problem, but a number of different ones. It is an international, a national and a local issue, and not a simple problem to address. It is hard to tackle because its effects, which may be long-term and subtle, are often difficult to trace to a particular cause and that makes coming up with a solution very difficult. We cannot eradicate pollution. Even if we can trace the cause, a solution might be hard because it might have been caused by human error, thoughtlessness or incompetence. Our constant challenge therefore is to mitigate the chances of pollution happening. Air and water are essential for life but, as the noble Baroness rightly said, pollution can kill.
Most of the damaging effects of air pollution occur across the life cycle and can begin at conception. The effect can range from premature birth to declining lung function, especially in later life. In the UK, air pollution costs businesses and healthcare services over £20 billion annually and is estimated to result in about 40,000 premature deaths—what a waste. In addition, air pollution causes a reduction in agricultural yields, irreversible damage to ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as damage to historical buildings and monuments—just look at this place. The effect of pollution on plants and ecosystems has been well noted for many years and I am reminded of what the great Scottish gardener WW Pettigrew, who did so much to create the beautiful parks in Cardiff before he moved to Manchester, wrote about pollution in 1928—some 90 years ago. I therefore support what the Minister said when he wound up the debate in July. He said: “The need to improve” our,
“air quality is of paramount importance”.—[Official Report, 3/7/17; col. 774.]
I hope he will give water the same high priority.
Despite the current problems, substantial improvement in air quality has been delivered. UK emissions of nitrogen oxides fell by 70% between 1970 and 2015 and almost 20% between 2010 and 2015. In February this year the UK was compliant with all current EU and international emission reduction targets, which have been applied since 2010. I take the completely contrary view to the noble Baroness: the EU has let us down, particularly on emission standards. EU businesses, German car-makers and the Commission have been very poor and have not helped anybody on the European continent. New targets have been signed up to and I have little doubt that, whichever Government are in power, every effort will be made to meet them. These new standards will affect business decisions vital for this country’s growth, such as the new runway in the south-east. But it is right that such issues of natural capital are included in the planning stage.
Even if we had no air pollution from within the UK we would still have air pollution because, at times, over half our air pollution comes from abroad, bringing with it in many cases diseases which are damaging both to us and to the environment. Whether we are in or out of the EU, we will have to work with international partners to improve not only their standards but also the measuring of those standards, and the uncensored publication of the true situation.
Being an island does not isolate us from incoming air pollution, but it helps us hugely with water. Our rivers are our own and do not contain another country’s pollution. As with air, water quality is a success story. In the early 1990s just 28% of bathing waters in England met the highest standards. Now it is 93.2%, with even tougher standards being implemented. In 2016, compliance with the EU drinking water directive was 99.96%. The public supply in England provided for a population of over 54.5 million people and came through 313,000 kilometres of mains pipes. Water companies carried out nearly 4 million tests of which only 1,132 failed to meet the necessary standards—that is impressive. We are truly spoilt in this country and take what we have very much for granted.
It is easy to think of polluters as industry and businesses. Those are the easy targets. It is much more difficult for us to acknowledge our contribution as individuals. I mentioned gas boilers in our previous debate, but a recent study in America shows that gas ovens are increasing internal NOx and carbon emission pollution by anything between 20% and 40%. This is mostly due to bad ventilation. When it comes to water, we as individuals pollute through such items as sewage, wastewater, soaps, washing detergents, oil poured down the drain, high rain street run-off, particularly from our cars, and litter. There is to be a 25-year plan, and that needs to involve individuals and resonate with them, because it is often the poorest and most vulnerable who are affected by pollution although, as I said, they also contribute to the problem.
Post Brexit, we have a huge opportunity to improve our position. I suggest to the Minister that it is the Government, their agencies and local authorities which should continue to set the standards, but let us go back to something like Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution—not subject to ministerial control, as it was in my day, but totally independent, so that the Government set the standards and we take away from their agencies the enforcement thereof. Let us have an independent inspectorate.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for her inspiring introductory speech. As an asthmatic person who has to come to London every week from the beautiful clean air of my home village in North Wales, I have a personal interest in this topic. As I stand by the roadside outside this building, I can smell the pollution, and it certainly affects my breathing. Unfortunately, I know that this is not a short-term effect, because the Royal College of Physicians tells us that the effects are lifelong and can make us more susceptible to infections and cancer. Indeed, I have noticed that too.
However, I am an adult, and developed as a child in an environment with much cleaner air. On the other hand, the children of today, especially those who live and go to school in deprived urban areas, are growing up and developing in air that is toxic. One in five of London’s primary and secondary schools is in an area of high air pollution, and 85% of those are in areas of greater than average deprivation. There are 950 schools and 1,000 nurseries across Britain close to an illegally polluted road.
However, we should not be concerned just about areas of high pollution. A recent study in the Harvard New England Journal of Medicine concluded that there is no safe level of air pollution and that disadvantaged people have the greatest adverse health effects, so, for reasons of health quality, we need to tackle it urgently.
The lungs are obviously the most susceptible organ. A study in southern California showed a clear link between the risk of developing early school-age asthma and air pollution associated with traffic. Apart from the obvious lung impairment and consequent increased stress on the heart, it is not widely known that air pollution, particularly the microparticulates in diesel fumes, can cross the placental barrier and affect the developing organs, including the foetal brain. This can have a very serious effect on all aspects of brain development, including cognition, and can also affect older people. We are reducing babies’ life chances before they are even born.
Infants are also particularly susceptible because they have a higher metabolic rate than adults and breathe a greater volume of air compared to their size. It is a double whammy: they breathe in more air and are more susceptible to its harmful effects. On top of that, they are often pushed around in buggies which put them exactly at the level of car exhausts. That is why it is particularly important for us to monitor the level of pollution around schools and nurseries and reduce it where necessary. We need to know what the problem is before we can address it.
Schools are usually on main roads, often at intersections, where pollution is greatest because vehicles have to stop and idle. Of course, many parents drive their children to school, although a recent report on air pollution and London schools suggested that this is not a major contributor to air pollution. The same report emphasised the importance to children’s health of physical activity and recommended active ways of getting to school, such as walking or cycling. It calculated that the benefits of the activity outweighed the risk of doing it in polluted air. However, it would obviously be better if the air was clean. I know a doctor who has carefully planned his children’s walking route to school along those lines, making sure that they walk along the less traffic-ridden roads and experience cleaner air.
I am sure that several speakers will recommend ways of reducing pollution in the first place, such as phasing out coal-fired power stations, supporting renewable energy sources, charging drivers of polluting vehicles for entering clean air zones, mandating reduced emissions standards for private cars, removing the dirtiest vehicles from the roads, encouraging electric cars and the charging infrastructure for them and, of course, improving access to public transport. I agree that those prevention measures are really important but, while we are waiting for all these measures to improve the air we breathe, we need to think about mitigation measures.
Our greatest allies in that fight are trees and other green plants. London is one of the greenest major cities in the western world, with many large and wonderful parks and gardens and thousands of street trees. Not for nothing are our public parks called the lungs of London, and the same applies in other British cities. Private gardens play a very big role, too. A consequence of that is the proliferation of beekeepers in London, since the number and variety of forage plants is so great. It is probably this fact that prevents us having even dirtier air in London since, not only do trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and give out oxygen, helping to mitigate global warming, but many of them are also very good at removing pollutants from the air before transpiring it out again.
I am pleased to say that many big developers are quite aware of the benefits of trees and other greenery around their buildings and infrastructure, and build landscaping and planting into the plans from the start. A good example of that is the new American Embassy in Nine Elms Lane just opposite where I live. They are planting many mature trees, hedges and ornamental grasses around the new building, which will buffer the noise and pollution from the traffic and contribute to the well-being of users of the building and local residents. We need local authority planners to insist that all developers do this, and to plan sufficiently far in advance to allow British growers the time to grow the stock they need in the interests of British biosecurity. All noble Lords will have heard about the many plant diseases that we inadvertently import, so I am sure we would all want to support our own home-grown British industry. Do the Government intend to include the planting of trees and green areas in their plans to meet the legal limits for air pollution? I know there is a plan to plant 1 million trees, but many of them will be in rural areas, which have clean air anyway. They should be in urban areas.
Of course, there are those who believe that our limits are too high anyway, so I urge the Government to keep going, even when current legal limits have been achieved. As members of the European Union, we have signed up to those legal limits, which we have still not achieved everywhere. I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness: it is not the standards that are wrong, it is the people who try to avoid them, such as VW. So, Brexit or no Brexit, will the Government introduce a new Clean Air Act so that we have new systems in place to achieve the standards to which we have signed up?
My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for introducing this debate, and her impressive introduction. I want to use my time mainly to focus on the regulatory framework for controlling air quality in the UK in the post-Brexit scenario. I declare an interest, in that I am the current president of Environmental Protection UK, Britain’s oldest environmental charity—formerly the National Society for Clean Air, which was instrumental in bringing into being the Clean Air Act 1956.
I make no apology for repeating my reference to that Act, which I did in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, in July. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I have another, personal interest to declare. As a 10 year-old living in west London with heavy congestion on the ground and under the Heathrow flight path, I was diagnosed with severe asthma. I continued to live in London for many years and, as a result of the Clean Air Act 1956, it began largely to clear up. But for a lot of other people, air pollution is still a problem in London, as it is in many urban and semi-urban parts of the UK.
As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, we have made progress. We have drastically cut sulphur dioxide emissions, for example, and many other pollutants have been reduced. This is partly because of the elimination of dirty factories, partly because emissions have been better managed and partly because there has been better regulation. Whatever the reason, we have made progress. The remaining area is principally, but not only, traffic and that is mainly, but not only, diesel—the wear and tear on the tyres and brakes also contribute to air pollution. Traffic volume is an important issue, but some 50% of air pollution is non-traffic—it comes from construction sites, agriculture, static plant, wood burning and gas appliances. Nitrogen dioxide and particulates have proved very difficult to reduce. Some are stubborn; some have been reduced but are now going up slightly again. There are more than 40 areas within the UK which are not meeting EU standards, which were supposed to have been achieved by 2010.
The medical effects have been spelled out this week in a substantial article in the Lancet and by evidence which, I suspect, we have all received from the BMA, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Royal College of Physicians. So we are looking not only at the statistical evidence of air pollution on mortality and on general ill-health, but our physicians have now identified the plausible means whereby damage is done and have shown that very small, ultra-fine particles enter the bloodstream within minutes of being inhaled. As has been said, this is particularly a problem for infants and young children and for children in the womb. The net effect on adults and children has been to contribute to 40,000-plus deaths nationwide, through pulmonary, cardiovascular and other diseases and aggravation of pre-existing conditions.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is also a social dimension. It affects the least well-off, and children are the least well-off in our society. One could say that the diesel cars of the top 25% are damaging the health of the bottom 25%, and the children in particular.
The way in which this has been dealt with has been very dependent on EU regulations and ultimately on EU enforcement. These regulations have not been met, either within the UK or within many other European countries. Enforcement has been difficult. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, indicated, the Volkswagen crisis has shown that the power of the German car manufacturers has overridden the health of the European population. Whether or not there were other ways of dealing with that, it greatly aggravated both the problem and the credibility of the system. The value limits in these EU regulations are at twice the level which the World Health Organization suggests are safe.
Even to meet the EU standards, the UK Government will need a more effective air quality strategy than they currently have. Having been found wanting in the courts twice over the last few months, the latest July version of Defra’s air quality plan admittedly includes a number of new elements—in particular, a target of 2040 for the end of petrol and diesel cars, which is less than other public authorities in Britain and Europe have set. It also provides some funds to support low-carbon vehicles. However, if you add up the totality of the air quality strategy, it is, in effect, a call for local authorities to draw up their own plans without any significant additional powers or resources. It is still not a coherent strategy, nor is it a coherent way in which to develop clean air zones. Local authorities have been somewhat slow in developing those. There is a real need to focus on the areas of worst pollution and to ensure that all central and local government-sanctioned developments near the areas of highest pollution do not cut across that.
This may be a minor example in some ways, but the reference of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to trees reminded me that just this week I saw an article in the Camden New Journal, which said that it was proposed to cut down 50 plane trees, which absorb pollution, to house temporarily the taxi rank displaced by HS2. That is an absurd counteraction. There is an even worse one: the London mayor has begun to develop an ambitious programme to introduce charges on all diesel vehicles and develop ultra-low vehicle emissions zones, but that could be undermined by the decision on Heathrow. Only yesterday, the Times stated that the latest reports suggest that the evidence relating to likely air quality problems arising from the building of a third runway at Heathrow mean that even the EU’s current levels will be undermined. I say to the Minister and his transport ministerial colleagues that the Times also stated that the risks of those limits not being met are low at Gatwick but very high at Heathrow. Given that new evidence, is the Minister inclined to change the approach to the building of a third runway at Heathrow?
My Lords, I intend to address air pollution and health. In the light of the recent reports of the Royal College of Physicians and the World Health Organization, I am more than happy to support this Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Miller.
For far too long, air pollution has remained swept under the rug, even as the UK remains among the worst in western Europe in its protection of the environment. The Committee on Climate Change notes that global average temperature since the late 19th century has risen by 1 degree Celsius, and that global sea levels have risen by about 20 centimetres—eight inches in old money. We are seeing increasingly volatile and historically unusual weather patterns, including not one but two storms hitting our coasts in mid-October, an ongoing degradation of our environment and increasing toxicity of our seas.
The environmental effects of air pollution are detrimental and widespread. Chemical compounds in our air mix with our environment to create acidic compounds in the process of acidification, which can cause harm to soil, vegetation and buildings. Increased nitrogen, a product of industrial and auto emissions, can be deposited in soil, rivers and lakes, affecting the chemical composition of these environments. These can have a severe effect on the plant and animal diversity in sensitive environmental settings. Air pollution is a killer. Recently, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that pollution-related health issues accounted for 9 million premature deaths worldwide, up from 3 million in a World Health Organization study in 2016.
In the UK, it is estimated that 40,000 deaths each year are caused by outdoor air pollution, with even more due to indoor exposure. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, mentioned gas fires and central heating in that regard. Action to reduce pollutants in the air could lower the figure of 40,000 by 15% each year. It is estimated that health problems arising from air pollution cost the NHS £20 billion each year, adding significantly to the strain on its already stretched resource. Additionally, it is estimated that £3.5 trillion is lost each year worldwide due to air pollution, an alarming 6.2% of global economic output, and that is sure to rise if prevailing trends continue.
Air pollution has been definitively linked to a large number of health conditions. It can cause or aggravate the onset of asthma, acts as a carcinogen and increases the risks of serious ailments such as stroke, heart disease and lung cancer, as well as respiratory disease. These effects are felt over the lifetime of the impacted population and can become lifelong ailments. Further, the health impacts of air pollution are not spread evenly across our population. Pollution-related illness is most heavily concentrated among the most vulnerable groups in society: the poor, the old and young children, as we have already heard. The lower-paid populations are disproportionately likely to live and work in polluted areas; the elderly and children are far more prone to become sick; and children suffer health consequences that remain with them for decades as a result of these contaminants in the air. Asthma, COPD, heart failure and some cancers can all trace their cause to poor air quality.
But not all is gloomy. In recent years, we have seen significant improvements in air quality, and our emissions are continuing to fall across the board. In all categories but one the UK is overall within legal limits, but there is significant regional variation. The Government have taken steps in the right direction. They have pledged £2.7 billion to improve air quality and create cleaner transport. They have acted to promote ultra-low emission vehicles, built electric vehicle charging infrastructures, and promoted cycling and walking. However, there is more to be done to address the issue.
Under devolution, the heavy lifting in dealing with this issue has largely been left to local authorities, the assemblies and parliaments, but not all have risen to the challenge. Although the Government have provided financial assistance for these local authorities to make plans, it remains a national issue that requires heavy co-ordination in order to be successful. My noble friend Lady Walmsley mentioned trees. I do not know whether I was the only one awake at an early hour of the morning to listen to the “Today” programme saying that we are not growing enough trees in the UK and that we are importing far too many trees for our timber. We need to get a move on and start growing trees, which, apart from anything else, capture carbon and, as has already been said, help to alleviate harmful emissions.
However, we need to look elsewhere for examples. In mainland Europe, car-sharing schemes in rural areas are part of the daily commute. That is not unusual—it happens. Some towns allow cars into city centres only on certain days, dependent on their car registration; major cities have well-established electric tram networks; and some insist that deliveries to shops in city and town centres are made out of hours.
We cannot continue allocating money and resources just to “plan to make a plan” in order to address this issue. We must take formative action—and soon. Although we are engaging in the Brexit process, we remain bound by the EU ambient air quality directive and must not allow the Brexit process to serve to undermine our standards and regulations. The description of what happens elsewhere might be classed as “bold”, given our marriage with the internal combustion engine, but Governments, local authorities and councils must be bold.
When summing up, can the Minister address two questions? First, what steps have the Government taken to ensure a reduction in emissions in the devolved nations and regions? Secondly, for the sake of the nation’s health, can he confirm that EU “firm environmental standards” will be maintained through the Brexit process, and can he promise not to reduce standards when we are not even in compliance with current legal standards?
Without further action, air pollution and climate change will continue to have grievous consequences for our public health and environmental conditions in ways that will only become more evident with the passage of time. We in the UK should regain our position as a world leader in environmental efforts. Any new regulations issued by the Government as a result of Brexit must, at a bare minimum, maintain current protections.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate and for her introduction to it and for the contributions so far. It is a debate in which the glass is both half full and half empty. The health impacts of air pollution and water pollution are such that we cannot afford to be complacent in this area. It is also an area of debate in which there are “alternative facts”. Therefore, it is important to keep rehearsing them and to see what gives in the discussion.
At the Dorset Climate Change Conference last Saturday, there was a very serious discussion about the nature and definition of fossil fuel subsidies. The local MP was said not to recognise that there are fossil fuel subsidies, but others quoted published papers that used the same sorts of figures that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, used in her introduction. They might be in the region of $6 billion and possibly as high as $10 billion. There is clearly a disparity about that, but if those figures are anywhere near correct, that is seven times the subsidy available to green energy. It is easier to get to very specific examples where there will be less debate. For example, the subsidies for diesel for refrigeration units mean that that is hardly taxed. That provides a perverse incentive for supermarkets and others to continue to use diesel. That has a big impact in the capital.
Since Monday, we have had the T-charge on older diesel cars. Would it be possible, in addition to reinvesting in cleaner transport, for this money to be used to combat pollution by the sorts of mitigation that have been mentioned already by a number of contributors to this debate, but specifically for what are called ozone gardens? Ozone gardens are planted with plants sensitive to ozone pollution such as snap beans, wheat, clover, common milkweed and cutleaf coneflower, which react visibly, warning when ozone pollution gets high, and creeping bentgrass, red ivy and purple spiderwort, which are efficient at capturing particles. There is only one ozone garden in this country, in Sheffield. They are quite popular in the United States. But I am pleased to announce to your Lordships that the first in the capital is planned for a churchyard, close to City Hall.
Water is such a precious commodity—70% of the Earth is made up of water. A really inspiring exhibition and series of conferences earlier this year called Just Water linked churches and cathedrals around the world—St Paul’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. The Archbishop of Cape Town, who was here launching the exhibition and discussion, talked about water in sacramental terms as precious, but the title of his talk used a very telling phrase: “Water is Life, Sanitation is Dignity”. More people have access to mobile phones than to sanitary facilities such as water closets. That is a telling figure. The sustainable development goals envisage that by 2030 safe water will be available to everyone. We will make progress with the sustainable development goals only if we pay attention to poverty and climate change.
Like others in the House, I very much welcome the Government’s clean growth strategy, but what measures will the Government take to pursue the efforts to which we committed at Paris to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius? It is such a strong and difficult aim, but what are we actually going to do to pursue that? How will the clean growth strategy be further developed to ensure that the UK will achieve the fourth and fifth carbon budgets? A big task is ahead of us.
Like others, I am concerned in relation to water and the huge problem of microplastic particles. They are found in freshwater environments in this country in places quite remote from populations. The Government estimate that something like 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year, posing a serious threat to our natural and marine environment. Experts estimate that plastic is ingested by 31 species of marine mammals and over 100 species of seabirds. I welcome the Government’s efforts so far. The glass is very definitely half full, but, my goodness, there is work to be done. I urge more ambition in the way that we look forward to the publication of legislation to ban microbeads later this year.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and former room-mate on securing this debate. There is universal support for the eradication of contamination and pollution from our rivers, canals and coastal waters. The benefits are substantial and widespread: public health and sport, animal and bird life, tourism, angling and wider economic benefit.
Much has been achieved in my lifetime. I grew up in the suburbs of Manchester, home to the Mersey, the Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal. In those days, they were pretty foul, smelly and unpleasant, like so many of our rivers and canals in the industrial north. I was born into an angling family. My great-uncle used to say to my uncle, “Jack, what would you rather do—go fishing?” I was taken as a 10 year-old by my late father and uncle to the headwaters of the River Ribble, learning to fish for trout in the Yorkshire Dales at Horton-in-Ribblesdale in waters controlled by the Manchester Anglers’ Association, which I was a member of for many years.
Thus, at a very early age, I contrasted the clean Ribble waters with those nearer home. Thankfully, through a combination of public pressure, government action, private sector activity and particularly EU directives, so much has changed. The Mersey and the ship canal have been transformed, and Salford Quays is now a major and attractive tourism destination.
When I became Tourism Minister in the late 1980s, many of our beaches and rivers were polluted, and I was always very happy in speeches and by attendance to support cleansing activities such as the Blue Flag awards. I remember acknowledging then that the Thames was one of our greatest unexploited tourism assets. Little did I think that, nearly 30 years later, I would be living in Richmond only a couple of hundred yards from that river, fishing for pike and seeing daily, particularly at weekends, dozens of youngsters happily learning to kayak and canoe and the occasional brave swimmer.
When still living in the north, I made my own modest contribution by stocking our local River Bollin, a tributary of the Mersey, with more than 100 brown trout. At the time, I did not realise that one needed Environment Agency authorisation to stock any river. It came, tested the water, said that it was somewhat marginal but gave me the go-ahead. Thankfully the trout prospered and bred. I was amazed to hear how great an area individual Environment Agency officers had to cover. Is the Minister satisfied that there are enough officers properly to monitor pollution levels and reports of contamination?
Continuing my tourism involvement, for more than 25 years I have chaired the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, the trade body for our major attractions—all receiving more than 1 million visitors a year. There are more than 70 now in membership: the jewels in our national tourism crown. One of our members is the Canal & River Trust, whose team of environmental scientists cares for its 2,000-mile inland waterway network and cleans up more than 200 pollution incidents every year. I pay tribute to the trust for all that it does so effectively, including its £8 million a year dredging programme, the resurfacing and improving of access to many miles of towpaths for walkers, joggers, cyclists and anglers, and the development of so many marinas and basins for the benefit of boating enthusiasts and tourists. When a constituency MP in north-east Lancashire and more recently, I have seen and heard of the development of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal by way of example.
In recent years, I have been privileged to take a week’s salmon fishing on the Hendersyde beat of the River Tweed below Kelso. With more than 4 million anglers, fishing is arguably the largest participation sport in the country. Fisheries, fish farms, tackle manufacturers and retailers provide employment for thousands, and the rural economy benefits greatly from visiting anglers.
Sadly, this year I have to report only one small 4lb salmon in a week’s fishing, probably the most expensive salmon per pound caught in UK waters this year. I have to say that I am very envious of my noble friend Lady Walmsley, who spoke earlier, who some weeks ago caught a 13lb salmon of which she proudly showed me a photograph. They say that women are more successful anglers—I think that proves it.
Huge strides have been made in recent years in cleaning up our rivers and waterways, as the noble Earl said, but more needs to be done. It is still very much work in progress.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in the debate.
I start by applauding what the noble Lord, Lord Lee, just said about the strides that have been made since we were children. I remember when there were smogs in London; police officers had to wear masks and the buildings were black. They are not black any more, but of course, more needs to be done. What has surprised me, if I may gently say so, is that although this should not be a party political debate in any way, I have heard quite a few party political comments. It was said, “if Brexit does happen”; well, the good people of Britain want Brexit to happen, as we know, and while I applaud the EU for some of the steps it has taken in pushing Britain over the last 30 years into better environmental practice, I heard only yesterday from a former Minister that we are putting forward ambitious programmes in the Council of Ministers but they are being held back, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, by other countries that do not want to go so fast. This is not a party political debate but something we all wish to see for the benefit of the British people and the world.
I want to focus on marine pollution—which has been mentioned, particularly by the right reverend Prelate—and especially on plastic. I should declare a sort of interest, in that I have been a member of the World Wildlife Fund—or WWF or whatever it calls itself these days—for a lot longer than I have been a member of the Conservative Party. Some people might work out whatever they like from that. Yesterday, I went to the launch of a pamphlet called Blue Belt 2.0: British Global Leadership in Ocean Conservation. It was written by my good friend, the right honourable Member for Newbury, Richard Benyon—a Minister for Agriculture in the last Government—and launched by the Foreign Secretary. I commend it to everybody in this House, because we are doing an enormous amount. I will briefly quote from it. This is from the Conservative Party manifesto, but I will come to the other parties shortly:
“We will champion greater conservation co-operation within international bodies, protecting rare species … the polar regions”.
We are setting up marine reserves in the next five years around Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha and other places. The same commitments, I should say, were in the Labour Party, Liberal Democrat and Green Party manifestos. This is really good stuff where Britain is leading the way. I have visited Ascension Island, South Georgia and the Falklands, and I am delighted that this project is going forward. I hope all noble Lords are as well.
Marine pollution has already been referred to. The sea has been seen as a dustbin for far too long, not just for runoff from agriculture, which is improving with things such as nitrate vulnerable zones—brought in by the EU, I think, but certainly found across the UK—but for sewage, which is of course pretty appalling. Until relatively recently, sewers used to go straight into the water and out to sea; we were dumping sewage sludge in the North Sea only 10 years ago. I do not think we do it any more. We need to look very closely at what we put into the sea. I used to dive a certain amount; I still do from time to time. I took an expedition to Half Moon Caye, off Belize, an awfully long time, perhaps 35 years, ago. I remember a lot of plastic—as well as some fantastic brown boobies, for those who are interested in birds—that had been dumped in the middle of a fantastic reef, where the Great Blue Hole is located. It is a very good dive, by the way. It was fabulous. However, on the island, which was only about half a mile long, there were hundreds and hundreds of flip-flops. The most extraordinary thing was that they were all right-hand flip-flops; I do not know where the left-hand ones went. My point is this: that was 35 years ago, but things have now got an awful lot worse.
The effects on wildlife of plastics in our oceans have already been mentioned, as have cosmetic beads. Let us get this straight: microbeads are being banned at the end of this year in the UK. We are leaders in this area and we should applaud the Government for that; but we need to go further. Today, there was a report in the Times on plastic microfibres in fleeces, which I did not know about; I am sure we all have fleeces. Those microfibres get ingested by plankton, which then go into the food chain. In fact, it may kill off the plankton anyway.
There is also a report on coral ingesting microplastics. I am not sufficiently au fait with this, but I think it may mean it gets taken out of the environment and ingested by coral, which I cannot think is much good for the coral. There is also a photograph published today that noble Lords can see online in the Telegraph of a stretch of plastic waste that is five miles long and two miles wide in the Cayos Cochinos marine reserve in the Caribbean, where I went on my trip to Half Moon Caye.
What do we do about this? It is not exactly easy, but we need to tackle it. The whole world needs to tackle it, so it has to be through international action. In Britain we have brought in a plastic bag charge, which I applaud—I think everybody does. It was not a particularly party-political issue. I backed it well before it was brought in, as did my Labour opponent in my constituency. We are banning microbeads.
All this is positive, but there is more yet to be done. Education is hugely important. Basic litter is scattered around our roads or thrown into the water. If anybody has not been diving they should try it one day, because the amount of rubbish you see anywhere that people go, on the bottom of our rivers and harbours, is just appalling. It is international action, through the EU but most especially through the United Nations, that will stop unnecessary waste by getting everybody to deal with it, including developing countries that perhaps think they have better or more important priorities. We need to recycle more. I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons some 25 years ago on recycling. We need to research degradable plastic. However, we need to take action now, otherwise the situation will only get worse and we need to make a world fit for future generations.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Miller for this important debate. We have heard a lot of figures about the number of deaths caused by pollution, but the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health estimates that 16%—one in six—of all deaths worldwide are caused by pollution. It is a worldwide problem, not just one for this country.
I will say a few words on a topic about which I have had a bee in my bonnet for many years: clean water supply. Yesterday on TV I saw an advert by the charity WaterAid. It told the story of a little girl aged about six, somewhere in Africa. Every day she gets up and has to walk for hours, carrying a large plastic container to collect water for the family. The water she fills that container with is not clean water like we get out of our taps, but water full of harmful bacteria. Instead of going to school, this little girl spends a large part of her waking hours fetching water that is positively harmful to her and her family. Every time I visit Africa I come back full of anger that we in the developed world allow so many people in poor countries to live like that little girl, with no clean water to drink.
I once went as an observer to elections in Sierra Leone. The village where I stayed had been in a rebel-held area during the civil war. Most of the buildings were damaged, many with no roof, no water supply and no communications. Every day a rusty United Nations tanker would visit, disgorging into old oil drums what they euphemistically called “water”. This “water” was either brown with green bits floating in it or green with brown bits floating in it. I drank bottled water I had brought from the capital Freetown, but the villagers had no choice. They used this substance for washing, drinking and cooking. I have seen similar conditions in other countries—Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon and Mozambique.
Yet, I met a professor of meteorology in Namibia who told me it does not need to be like this. Enough rain falls on the African continent that everyone could have access to clean water. The issue is how to store the rain and then distribute it to the people—water infrastructure. Charities such as WaterAid do what they can and should be supported, but I learned some time ago that WaterAid’s entire worldwide budget is less than what is spent by Thames Water on trying to improve the purity of the water supply in its area from 99 point something per cent to slightly more than 99 point something per cent.
We are very good at water in this country and, post Brexit, we are going to need friends all over the world. I can think of no better way to win the hearts and minds of people like the little girl with the plastic container than to help put in the infrastructure so that they can access clean water, so that she can go to school and many fewer people will die from drinking polluted water. So here is a challenge for our Government and for President Trump and our American cousins, too. Instead of threatening to destroy countries such as North Korea, why not use that money instead to help give Africa a decent water supply? Make long-term friends instead of long-term enemies.
We heard from the noble Earl that pollution is also a huge problem for animals and our wildlife. Animals are exposed to air pollutants through inhalation or ingestion or by absorbing gases through their skin. It is mostly the soft-bodied invertebrates, such as earthworms, or animals with thin, moist skins, such as frogs and toads, which are affected by the absorption of pollutants, while birds are more susceptible to air pollution by inhalation, due to their higher respiratory rates. Plants take up pollutants from the air, which are then deposited on leaves, ready to be ingested by an unsuspecting herbivore.
Just as long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer and heart disease in humans, the ways in which pollutants affect these animals are diverse and frightening and include respiratory stress, physiological impairment, gross malformations of bones and teeth, birth defects, and, in birds, decreases in egg production and embryo survival. This can lead to changes in birth, growth and death rates and problems in migrating, which can have disastrous consequences for many species of birds. Of course, problems intensify when pollutants enter the food chain.
Acid rain changes the ecology of our waterways. An acidic stream or river does not make a happy home for our otters, for example, and fish-eating birds such as the osprey will need to find an alternative place to live. Pollution is destroying the environment by impairing its natural beauty, ruining its natural features and depleting natural resources. It is weakening our ecosystem and decimating biodiversity. While humans can, to some degree, protect ourselves from pollution in air and water, our wildlife simply has no defence against it.
When I discuss these issues with friends they ask, “Well, what can I do?”. Here are six things off the top of my head. Next time you change your car, buy an electric or hybrid model. Secondly, stop using insecticides and weed-killers in your garden. Thirdly, investigate using renewable energy in your home. Fourthly, recycle more, particularly plastic, which the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, told us about. Fifthly, contribute to charities such as WaterAid, which are trying, successfully, to supply more people with clean water. Sixthly, encourage your friends, relatives and local representatives—councillors, MPs, even, dare I say, Peers—to take an interest and take action themselves. Air and water: we cannot live without them.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for giving us the opportunity to debate these important matters. I am going to focus on air pollution, and specifically on nitrogen dioxide’s important role in the great harm being caused to our citizens by polluted air. I also have an important question for the Government and I am hoping that the Minister will be able to explain something in his reply that has been puzzling me for a while.
Here are the headlines about the effects of nitrogen dioxide, some of which have already been mentioned in this debate. This silent killer is one of the main contributors to the 40,000 deaths which occur prematurely every year through strokes, heart disease and diabetes. It causes asthma in otherwise healthy children, and negatively impacts children’s development; it stunts their lung growth, starting somewhat horrifically in the womb.
In 2012, the World Health Organization moved nitrogen dioxide to its highest classification of the causes of cancer, alongside arsenic and mustard gas. It definitely causes lung cancer and probably also causes bladder cancer. As we have heard, the Royal College of Physicians estimates that the health cost to the UK is £20 billion a year. If that cash cost, that death rate and that serious damage to our children’s future were being caused by something like terrorism, badly formulated medicine or food poisoning, the Government would act with great urgency, and rightly so.
Here is the puzzle: why did the Government waste £370,000 of taxpayers’ money trying in vain to repel court action whose only purpose was to make them do something? They have not even taken legal action against Volkswagen over its cheating on diesel emissions tests, despite cases being brought across the globe. Why did they spend a large amount of money on trying to avoid having to take steps to make us healthier when it could have been spent on making us healthier? It is bewildering.
More than half of nitrogen dioxide pollution is caused by road transport and about 40% of that is belched out by diesel cars. Surprisingly, diesel cars are much more polluting than HGVs and buses, partly because larger vehicles are subject to much stricter testing. Diesel cars pump out two and a half times the nitrous oxides emitted by HGVs per kilometre, and 10 times as much per litre of fuel. To be fair, there has been some action from the Government on this, but it has been comically unambitious. They came up with a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel-powered cars from 2040, which is 23 years away. This is the Government’s idea of a quick win.
Other European countries have been much more challenging to car manufacturers, showing that they are in a hurry to dramatically reduce this scandalous annual death toll. Several have set their deadlines to 2025, and our Government should be doing the same or better. They should also be devising a targeted scrappage scheme to get rid of the diesel cars that are already on our roads spewing out toxic pollutants many times over the legal limit. I would like to put in a word here for the much maligned European Union. Without their many sensible directives on these issues, we would not have any standards for our Government to brazenly flout. We must ensure that those standards are preserved or improved if Brexit were to actually happen.
My home city of Bath is one of the 29 cities that are deemed to be seriously in breach of the legal limits on air pollution. Our World Heritage City is surrounded by hills and has chronic congestion and pollution. House prices in the centre are astronomic, which means that many people have to live outside the city and commute in to town, and many do so by car. The school run is a problem in Bath and many parents do not realise that by driving to school, they are contributing to the pollution that is poisoning their own children.
The current Conservative administration have, like the Government, done virtually nothing about it. Fortunately my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Bath are determined to tackle our city’s problems when they win back control of the council in 2019. They really mean business and I am confident that they will succeed in making Bath the healthiest city in the country in terms of its air.
My final point is positive and hopeful. There is an opportunity here for the UK to lead the world in a technological transport revolution. We have specialist skills in battery technology and smart grid technology development, along with plans to be a leader in electric vehicles. If we put our minds to it, we can secure a significant share of the estimated $1.5 trillion of revenue expected to be generated by 2030 in these new markets.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for initiating this debate, which has been truly fascinating and comprehensive in the range of speeches undertaken.
I start by saying a few words about water pollution. Many noble Lords have referred to the big strides taken in improvement in recent decades, most of which is due to EU standards. But those standards, as has been said, must be maintained and improved if we leave the EU; that cannot be used as an opportunity to reduce what we require. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that talking about Brexit is not a party-political point. His own party is totally split on the issue. However, there is a fundamental point in it about standards on pollution.
I agree entirely. I had hoped we are on the right side in this. If the noble Baroness were to read the Secretary of State for the Environment’s comments, she will see that Michael Gove is absolutely ahead of the EU on this. She also said, “If we leave the EU”. The people voted to leave the EU and we are going to do so. Legally, we are going to leave the EU.
We are a long way off it and have not got very far in the last year or so.
We take it for granted, as my noble friend Lord Jones pointed out, that we have access to clean drinking water when we turn on the tap. But that is not the case the world over and it is not the case with air quality. As we meet one standard on water quality, it is evident that other challenges arise. The right reverend Prelate referred to microplastic contamination and its impact, not just in the sea but on our water supply through the ingestion of microplastic beads. That demonstrates to me that we have to work in concert across the world, with other nations.
Rivers present a constant challenge because four out of five of our rivers in England and Wales fail to meet good ecological standards, although my noble friend Lord Lee pointed out the importance of the improvements. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, for his comments on marine pollution and for mentioning several campaigns on it. I also mention the work done by Sky News, which has run a long-standing campaign on plastic pollution in the sea.
Many speakers have referred to the obvious importance of the impact of pollution on health, particularly air pollution as an insidious threat. Many organisations are working on this now: the BMA, the British Lung Foundation, the British Heart Foundation and the Royal College of Physicians. Friends of the Earth has also done a great deal of work on this. I want to concentrate on transport because that accounts for a third of our NOx emissions and a fifth of our particulate emissions. That is an average across Britain but if you look at the figures for urban areas, you see that in many of them it accounts for two-thirds of air pollution. We have the worst urban air quality in Europe.
There is a reasonable level of public awareness of the link between nitrogen dioxide emissions and asthma. However, as noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Jolly, have said, many other problems can be ascribed to this including premature births, low birth weight, child mortality, the development of children’s lungs and the decline of lung function in older people. Diesel emissions also cause cancer. We accept the evidence and take action in our personal lives to deal with the link between smoking and cancer, but we are at a much earlier level of public awareness of the impact of poor air quality.
It is much more difficult for people—in particular, children—to avoid poor air quality than it is for them to avoid the impact of smoking, unless they have the misfortune to live in a family where people smoke indoors. Children cannot avoid the pollution because they hold their parents’ hands and are taken across the road at the level of exhaust pipes and there are so many cars idling outside schools. We have a great deal of work to do. Will the Minister says how the Government are going to address the public health emergency we face and raise public awareness of it? It is important that that is done because the measures that need to be taken will not be accepted unless there is public awareness. When people bought diesel cars—I was one of them—they did so with the best of intentions. Tackling climate change was a top priority, and people realised the impact of nitrogen dioxide and particulates from diesel vehicles only later. Since then, the EU has had a key role in upgrading standards. I take issue with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness: it was not the EU that let us down about diesel vehicles; it was Volkswagen, which tried to evade EU standards.
The Government’s response to this public health emergency has been totally inadequate. That is not just my view; it is the view of the courts. In February, the EU Commission gave the UK a final warning over its failure to meet targets on air pollution. Reference has already been made to the fact that the Government spent £370,000 trying to avoid publishing their plan, but they have now published a third version of it and it is still totally inadequate.
I shall now mention some of the things that the Government should be doing to achieve a comprehensive action plan to improve air quality. We have to change driving habits, and we have to empower local authorities to take action in communities. That is needed at local and national level as well as internationally. Some actions will take time and be expensive; other actions are inexpensive and can be done immediately, such as having far more monitoring sites and air pollution indication signage in pollution hotspots. That would alert the public and encourage people to apply a no-idling rule outside schools, for example. This sort of thing is already being trialled in London, and it is very easy, quick and efficient to do. In turn, this information should be used as the basis for ultra-low emission zones, another thing that London is introducing.
King’s College’s research has shown that London breached its air pollution limit just five days into 2017, so it certainly needs ultra-low emission zones. In the country as a whole, only six out of 43 monitoring zones in the UK were compliant with legal NOx limits. We welcome the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill but we need a much broader Bill that includes a well-targeted diesel scrappage scheme.
There are schemes in the Bill to improve the number of charging points, but there is no reference, for example, to using lamp-posts as locations for them. Diesel buses, hydrogen buses and all these things need to be addressed by the Government in order to have a much more comprehensive approach to this problem.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for tabling the debate this evening, for the compelling evidence she has cited today and for her passionate call for action. I am also grateful to other noble Lords for sharing their experience and their continuing concerns. I refer noble Lords to my declaration in the register of interests.
We have debated the growing threat of air pollution to public health several times recently, and on each occasion the scientific evidence has become more and more damning and, I have to say, the Government’s response to that more inadequate. As several noble Lords have pointed out, it is clear that this is becoming a huge public health scandal, with thousands of deaths a year from cardiovascular and lung disease linked to air quality, a rise in COPD and asthma, and a shocking impact on childhood lung development. What is now better understood is that the carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates do not just invade the lungs but are also absorbed into the bloodstream and even into human brains, with some evidence of a link to Alzheimer’s disease. My noble friend Lord Whitty and other noble Lords highlighted the particular harm that occurs to the most disadvantaged and disabled people in our society.
The more evidence is made available, the more alarm bells ring. We are only now beginning to understand the full consequences of the public health crisis. But it seems that the only place where alarm bells are not ringing is in government. When has Jeremy Hunt or Michael Gove made a major speech acknowledging the public health threat? Why is there not a huge national public awareness campaign? Why has a new clean air Bill not been urgently introduced? If we can find time for a Space Industry Bill, we can find the time for new legislation to tackle toxic air—quite frankly, I know which the public would prefer.
The right reverend Prelate referred to the Government’s clean growth strategy, which indeed sets some lofty ambitions to deliver a low-carbon economy and an improved natural environment, including by tackling pollution. But as he pointed out, it is already failing to deliver on its own climate change targets, and this new strategy is woefully short on measurable targets for the short term, which is what we need and which are vital to address the issues before us today. Perhaps the Minister can update us on progress on meeting those targets.
Meanwhile, the issue of air pollution needs national leadership now. Thankfully, Sadiq Khan has stepped into the vacuum, and other mayors are following suit. But the Government’s overall plan to pass the problem down to local authorities is simply not working. The latest government statistics show that the number of local authorities missing air quality targets reached a seven-year high last year: 278 of the 391 councils are now declared to have air quality objectives which are not being met. This is up from 258 in 2010.
ClientEarth has highlighted that 45 local authorities are not being required to take action, despite breaching air pollution limits for several years in a row. Not surprisingly, ClientEarth is contemplating taking the Government to court for the third time. So, instead of prevaricating and being embarrassed by successful court actions against them, why do the Government not get a grip, for example, by introducing a Clean Air Act, introducing a targeted diesel-scrappage scheme, providing new incentives for purchasing clean vehicles and setting up a clean air fund to help local authorities conform to the new standards? Can the Minister address these concerns in his response?
The noble Baroness and other noble Lords talk with passion about the impact of water pollution on our environment and, as with other environmental challenges, we are somewhat protected by the EU legislation, such as the European water framework directive and the bathing water directive. While I am sure the Minister will reassure us that the Government plan to absorb these directives and associated regulations into UK law, I hope he will also address the concern that this will be meaningless if there is not also a comparable access to courts and to justice—including a continuation of the precautionary principle—to make sure that these new laws are enforced.
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, referred to Michael Gove being ahead of the game. He may be on some issues but on this and other issues we are still waiting for answers, so I am very much hoping that the noble Lord will be able to give some guidance on that.
While the noble Baroness is criticising the Government so much, can she remind the House who it was that encouraged us all to buy diesel cars which have led to the pollution of which she is speaking?
I think the noble Lord knows the answer to that. It was done for very good reasons—as we all know—because of the carbon implications which we were tackling at the time and I think we would all put our hands up and say that, if we knew then what we know now, it would have been a very different policy. But I have to say to the noble Lord that the question I was posing was: how will we make these UK laws enforceable when we take them back into our own legislative framework? I am sure the Minister will answer that question when he comes to it.
In the meantime, we still have major challenges in delivering clean water which is suitable for human health, farming, food, and a healthy wildlife. For example, despite the efforts of the Environment Agency, and others, only 36% of UK rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and ground water was classified as “good” or “better”, as defined in the water framework directive. The Environment Agency’s timescale for improving on this record has slipped. The recent report from the WWF on river pollution shows that nearly half of all rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage from sewage treatment plants and sewer overflows. Apart from the threat to human health of such pollution, it also has the effect of starving rivers of the oxygen that wildlife needs to survive.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to the Thames initiative and last week I visited the Thames tideway route which, when complete, will provide a new sewerage tunnel to capture the 39 million tonnes of untreated sewage which enters the Thames every year. It will finally make it a safe place for recreation and allow wildlife to flourish. But this is only one initiative, and we clearly need stronger powers to mandate water companies to stop sewage polluting our rivers and to make sure that modern, integrated sewerage systems and SUDS are introduced. Can the Minister say what further action is being planned to ensure that this becomes a reality?
A number of noble Lords talked about the impact of agricultural processes and, indeed, that has a major polluting effect. Uncontrolled spreading of slurries and manure, disposal of sheep dip, and use of pesticides and fertilisers are all adding to river pollution. The WWF estimates that agriculture and rural land management are responsible for 54% of water pollution incidents. There is, I accept, a growing awareness of this problem among the farming community, but more incentives are needed to make sure that good practice, such as the catchment-sensitive farming projects, becomes the mainstream and the reality. Hopefully, the payments system replacing the CAP can be utilised to reward those that enhance river quality. Can the Minister indicate whether this is being considered?
Finally, several noble Lords raised the issue of marine pollution. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that there have been some welcome initiatives, such as marine conservation zones, which were instigated by the previous Labour Government and are of course welcome, but we are still battling with other incidents of direct sewage polluting our seas, part of which comes from the river pollution that runs into the sea. Despite our efforts to clean up our bathing water—and we have made progress—20 sites were found to be unsafe for swimmers in the latest European Environment Agency assessment, which has just been published. The UK is second bottom in the EU league table. This is, to say the least, embarrassing and does little to enhance our reputation as a tourist hot spot post-Brexit. Organisations such as Surfers against Sewage have rightly been vociferous in highlighting the health dangers of polluted bathing water. Can the Minister update us on what further action is being taken to make our beaches 100% compliant?
Meanwhile, of course I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that microbeads are to be banned, and of a consultation on a bottle deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and cans. That is something that we have been calling for over a long time. The scale of plastic pollution is daunting. In the UK, we use 35 million plastic bottles every day, and nearly half are not recycled. The river, beach and ocean pollution is an eyesore, but more importantly a threat to wildlife and our environment. It has been great to hear David Attenborough talking so passionately about plastic pollution in his latest series of “Blue Planet”, and it has been welcome and surprising to hear even Coca-Cola backing the idea of a bottle return scheme. We are indeed making progress. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to confirm that the Government intend to follow through on this initiative—he will certainly have our backing if he does so. Perhaps the Minister can update us on the timetable for implementation. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness for securing this debate, because it has been fascinating.
As we all know, our environment is a complex system in which impacts on air, water, soils, biodiversity and the beauty of natural landscapes are all interlinked. This will be the core theme of the Government’s 25-year environment plan, which seeks to realise our bold ambition to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than the one we inherited.
Air and water do not respect boundaries. Water flows across borders and, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, up to half of the air pollution in the United Kingdom comes from abroad. In 2014, a total of 17 member states reported failure to meet EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide. This underscores our shared responsibility to take action at home and abroad.
As many of your Lordships have highlighted, poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in this country, exacerbating the impact of pre-existing health conditions such as breathing difficulties and heart problems, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, highlighted. As many of your Lordships have said, those most affected are often the most vulnerable: the young, the elderly and the less affluent. Respected organisations have estimated the annual mortality attributable to poor air quality at between 40,000 and 50,000 early deaths per year. That is a dreadful situation.
I want particularly to pick up the point that the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Randerson, mentioned about children and schools. Many local authorities have introduced measures to raise awareness and influence driving behaviours, especially around schools. I know, for instance, that the City of Westminster has been particularly strong on idling engines generally; but around schools, that is hugely important. Indeed, clean air zones can be specifically designed to take targeted action for schools, hospitals and other areas where young and vulnerable people are most exposed to harmful emissions.
I think we can all agree—and we have definitely all agreed—that this issue has to be tackled. But it is important to note, because it highlights that it is all achievable, that, as my noble friend Lord Robathan stressed, huge progress has been made since those deadly smogs of the 1950s. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, outlined that since 1970 emissions of sulphur dioxide have fallen by 96%, nitrogen oxides by 69% and particulates by 76%. That has been achieved because of regulatory frameworks, investment by industry in cleaner processes, and a shift towards cleaner forms of energy.
I very much endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said about trees and gardens—in fact, there are two beehives at the Defra offices. Because Grown in Britain was only a fortnight ago, I showed my solidarity by going to—
The Minister is well aware of my keen interest in the planting and care of trees, particularly in urban areas, and I agree very much with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. I was very badly affected by the news from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that already this ridiculous HS2 project is costing us mature plane trees in London. But could the Minister confirm that when—not if—Brexit happens, it will present us with a golden opportunity to tighten our rules on importing trees and improve our biosecurity, which at the moment presents a great threat to our indigenous tree population?
That is why my noble friend will be very pleased that Grown in Britain is an initiative that I very much encourage.
I am very much looking forward to visiting in every diocese an ozone garden, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury outlined. While these achievements show what we can achieve, we know that more must be done. The evidence of the damage from poor air quality to health and the environment has grown significantly in recent years. The most immediate challenge is tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads—the only statutory air quality limit that the UK is currently failing to meet. In 2008, the UK Government, I am sure in good faith, signed up to tougher standards, based on the assumption that they would solve our roadside air quality problem, but this of course was to no avail. Current Euro 6 diesels emit, on average, six times the laboratory test limit. We should all be pleased that our country led the way in securing the new real driving emissions testing.
As the UK improves air quality, air quality hotspots are going to become even more localised, and the importance of local action will increase. I take a contrary view to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, in that the work we need to do with local government is going to be absolutely imperative. As we get to and reduce the hotspots, it is local knowledge that will enable us to resolve this issue. That is why, in May this year, the UK Government published a clean air zone framework, setting out the principles that local authorities should follow in setting up clear air zones in England. That framework empowers local authorities to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Government’s air quality plan.
The Government have committed £3 billion in varying ways to improving air quality. There is the more recent £255 million fund to support local authorities with persistent nitrogen dioxide concentration exceedances, and £1.2 billion for a cycling and walking investment strategy. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raised this very important issue. There is £1 billion for improving the infrastructure for ultra-low emission vehicles, and £290 million to reduce transport emissions as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. Indeed, that money is making a difference. The Clean Bus Technology Fund has reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides from almost 3,000 older buses by 75%. Retrofitting school buses in Manchester resulted in a 92% reduction after two years in service. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund has resulted in 780 km of new cycle routes, 230 upgraded rail stations, and 200 better bus services. Nitrogen dioxide emissions fell by almost 20%—
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but the issue that none of us can understand—not just we on these Benches, but lots of campaigners and so on—is why the Government will not just adopt a new clean air Act. It is such a simple thing, and would provide a framework for a number of the initiatives he is talking about. However, it would also provide statutory backing for some of the things that are currently voluntary requirements of local authorities, and which frankly are not happening.
I was going to get to that but I am afraid my time is getting increasingly short because of interventions, so I may have to write in more detail on a lot of these matters.
By next year, 92% of the road miles which we are monitoring—the ones more likely to be of concern—will comply with average annual concentration limits. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, will be pleased that, per capita, we have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and all other noble Lords that we must go further. The Government have announced they will end the sale of all conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040.
Does the Minister not think this is rather late in the day, given that several of the manufacturers have already said they will cease to produce them in the early 2020s?
That is the target we have set. As I say, I am very happy to take interventions, but I will not then finish this speech.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, called for a new Clean Air Act. We will be bringing forward a new clean air strategy for consultation next year and listen with interest to views on whether we can improve our existing regulatory framework. However, more legislation is not always the answer, and we are determined to get on and tackle the problem with the many tools already at our disposal.
Research and infrastructure will be critical. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, will be pleased to hear this. The £246 million Faraday Challenge will boost expertise in battery technology, supporting collaboration across British companies of all sizes. Co-operation between public and private endeavours, with entrepreneurs like James Dyson investing £2 billion in research into electric vehicles, will put Britain at the vanguard of this innovation.
We have seen a sevenfold rise in charge points since 2010 and we have Europe’s largest network of rapid charge points. A fifth of electric cars sold in Europe in 2016 were made in this country. We are supporting consumers with combined grants of up to £5,000 to purchase a ULEV and install domestic chargers. ULEV registrations increased by 40% between 2015 and 2016.
As noble Lords have said, everyday activities are also emitting dangerous air pollutants. While all these activities are essential in principle, there are better, cleaner technologies and simple changes that can make a big difference. Medium combustion plants and generators providing power to the national grid are currently significant and largely unregulated sources of air pollution. We are introducing legislation which is expected to reduce these emissions.
Domestic wood and coal burning accounts for 39% of total harmful particulate emissions. Last month the Government launched the Ready to Burn scheme, working with industry and retailers to persuade households to shift from wet unseasoned wood to ready-to-burn wood. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is right to raise this and, as a farmer, I would be concerned about it. In 2015 agriculture accounted for over 80% of total UK ammonia emissions. To reduce this, we have provided practical help for farmers through the Farming Ammonia Reduction Grant Scheme, which has funded slurry store covers, and can reduce emissions by up to 80% during slurry storage. We are also providing on-farm advice.
As far as water is concerned, the health of our rivers, lakes, estuaries, coasts and marine environment is hugely important. I am pleased that a number of noble Lords have mentioned clean seas in the overseas territories where we have undertaken some very good work. I was also struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, said about our responsibilities overseas. It was a pity that my noble friend Lord Bates was not sitting alongside me to have heard the noble Lord’s contribution. I will make sure that my noble friend sees Hansard. DfID leads our work to end extreme poverty and access to clean water and sanitation is essential to this mission. In another life, I was very struck when I heard about WaterAid installing solar panels to enable wells to be used which have transformed people’s ability to succeed in their agricultural endeavours.
We have set ourselves ambitious targets to return at least three-quarters of our waters to as near their natural state as possible and to improve the rest significantly. Ours is a populous country. We have the industrial past to contend with and continued pressures from agriculture, sewage and urban development. Thanks to previous efforts across the water sector, our water environment is in its healthiest state since the Industrial Revolution. Since privatisation, £25 billion has been invested in sewerage and wastewater infrastructure. The amount of phosphorous discharged from sewage works has reduced by 61% since 1995, and ammonia by 72%; and 7,000 storm overflows have been improved. These investments have improved over 9,000 miles of our rivers and substantially improved the quality of our bathing waters. Last year, nearly 98.5% of our bathing waters met new, more stringent standards, compared with 45% meeting lower standards in the mid-1990s. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that more must be done. That is why we want to work collaboratively with a range of partners to drive forward improvements.
As there have been a number of reports on the state of our rivers, I commend to your Lordships the publications of the Environment Agency, including on the environmental performance assessment, which found that the number of serious water pollution incidents has reduced by more than half in the last 15 years, and that 75% of the tests we use to measure the health of rivers and lakes in England have results of good or high status. However, it is essential that we are not complacent. We must build on this. The water industry is already working on tougher targets and we support it in improving its planning and investment in wastewater infrastructure.
Our statutory river basin management plans provide the framework for protecting and improving our water environment. Current plans confirm over £3 billion of investment by water companies in the environment over the next six years. Already, 1,400 miles of rivers and surface waters in England have been enhanced as we move towards our goal of 5,000 miles by 2021.
I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, mentioned fishing. Indeed, only a few days ago I was thinking about the number of fish species now in the River Thames that never would have been there many years ago. I very much resonate with his comment that in so many cases the fishing community has often been the first to highlight instances of pollution and I thank that community for its work on that issue. We need to ensure that our rivers become ever clearer not only for drinking but for sporting purposes.
We continue to work with the farming industry. Agriculture is now the most significant source of pollution in our waters, mainly due to run-off of phosphates and sediment into watercourses. We recognise the efforts of farmers to date in reducing pollution and we wish to continue to work with them collaboratively because we must do more. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Miller, referred to agriculture in particular. I have a lot of information and I shall write to your Lordships on that. Defra’s catchment-sensitive farming programme works with farmers to identify the actions they can take to improve both the environment and their businesses through nutrient management, soil husbandry, management of farmyard manures and use of pesticides. We have also provided £12 million since 2009 for demonstration test catchments to ensure that we have robust evidence on how agricultural pollution can be controlled.
We equally need to address the issues that arise from urban growth. We have recently set out strategic priorities and objectives for Ofwat, the water industry regulator, to challenge water companies to improve planning and investment. We wish to work towards a resilient, affordable sewerage and drainage system for the long term. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Miller, mentioned sustainable drainage systems. The Government introduced measures to encourage sustainable drainage systems in new developments. They are considering what further measures may be necessary, because these are obviously hugely important.
A number of points were raised about how water companies are working. We need to ensure that the treatment of pollution is as efficient as possible, and we need to remove particulates. Many of your Lordships referred to plastics, which cause much of the pollution in our seas. A very high proportion of marine pollution comes from the land through rivers, so we must address this issue. We have very strong ambitions on plastics, and I am pleased that our country has been pushing forward with a ban on microbeads. I and my ministerial colleagues want to do as much as we can on that front.
In that respect, I think that many of those in the environmental world will recognise that the Secretary of State has a vision of a green Brexit. He has stated very strongly that we need great passion to ensure that we put into practice proper custodianship and stewardship of the planet. It is important to recognise that the air we breathe and the water we drink are dependent on that stewardship.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned devolution. Although these are devolved matters, we work very closely with the devolved Administrations. As I said earlier, that is essential, as boundaries do not respect pollution.
We in this country want to set very high standards. We produced the Clean Air Act in 1956, 17 years before we became a member of the EEC. That commitment will remain and we have a strong wish to enhance it. Our environment plan is intended for that purpose. Public and private investment, building on shared expertise and knowledge, will ensure that the people of our country can breathe clean air and drink and enjoy the clean water that they deserve. I agree with my noble friend Lord Caithness that that is of paramount importance, and I believe that it is our duty to secure it.
My Lords, I warmly thank all noble Lords who have spoken—in particular for emphasising the international nature of this issue, as that is very important. While I am referring to the international aspect, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that I can identify where the other half of the flip-flops are, because I visited Yucatán—a wonderful part of Mexico—which has been spoilt only by the number of left-foot flip-flops on the beach.
I would like to mention a couple of other themes that ran through this debate. First, I am very glad that my noble friends brought up the subject of trees, which also play a role in the world of water. My noble friend Lord Jones of Cheltenham mentioned frogs and toads. Of course, frogs and their ability to live in water are a bellwether when it comes to pollution. I think that there is probably further work to do with the Environment Agency on the question of the poor or low status of rivers, because I have slightly different figures from those mentioned by the Minister. However, I would love to meet the Environment Agency at some point to explore further what measures it is using and whether the health of frogs is one of them.
I am also very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for telling us about ozone gardens, which I had certainly never heard of. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford for the very vivid picture he painted of what a clean river means, not only in aesthetic terms but in economic and recreational terms.
All noble Lords brought a great deal to this debate but I commend one issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—the importance of the precautionary principle. In my introduction I mentioned nanomaterials but they are just one example. If we leave the European Union, keeping the precautionary principle as a fundamental bedrock that backs up every decision we make will be of the utmost importance.
House adjourned at 5.45 pm.