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Air Quality and Emissions

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what has been the improvement in air quality, emissions and other environmental indicators since the COVID-19 restrictions were introduced.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, nitrogen dioxide pollution at the roadside has almost halved during the lockdown period as a result of reduced emissions from traffic, with much smaller reductions observed for particulate matters in urban areas. Emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants from energy use and transport are likely to be much lower than in normal times, on account of reduced energy demand and much lower road traffic estimates.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that, and of course these are positive benefits to the environment. Does the Minister agree that as we move into economic recovery from the pandemic we cannot go back to business as usual? Does he agree that we must seek to benefit from the gains to the environment, in particular with regards to air pollution and climate change, and that we should not support industries unless they make a commitment to meet the higher standards in respect of the environment? What is the Government’s policy as we move forward?

While the world is rightly focused on tackling the immediate threat of coronavirus, the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, which in many respects overshadow and dwarf the threat of coronavirus, have not gone away. As we rebuild our economy in response to the pandemic and make decisions about reconstruction, it is vital that we make decisions which provide long-term resilience and sustainability, and that we avoid decisions that will end up imposing big costs on future generations.

The Government are absolutely committed to being world leaders in tackling the environmental crisis we face. We are going to continue our ambitious legislative agenda through our landmark Environment Bill, Fisheries Bill and Agriculture Bill, all of which combined will help us deliver on our 25-year environmental plan. The noble Lord will have heard remarks and commitments by the Secretary of State for Transport just a couple of days ago, in which he announced a record level of funding for active travel—alternatives to car use and even public transport use.

My Lords, given the Minister’s interest in Heathrow, does he agree that the aviation sector has contributed more than 26% to greenhouse gas emissions in the last five years? Yet Heathrow is going ahead with an appeal to the Supreme Court for its third runway. Does he accept that this highly polluting business model is now defunct, and can he tell us what the Government’s position is on that Supreme Court appeal?

The aviation sector has taken a pounding, not surprisingly, as a consequence of the coronavirus and travel bans around the world. It is not clear to anyone yet what the sector will look like as it emerges.

In relation to Heathrow expansion specifically, the test has always been that it would need to be reconciled with air quality targets that this country must abide by. Given that this Government are introducing an Environment Bill which includes a duty on the Secretary of State to set very high standards in relation to our air quality, that hurdle—in my view and in the Government’s view—is extremely high.

What measures does my noble friend envisage can be introduced now so that we do not return to the bad old days of high levels of pollution of the air we breathe?

This is a huge question and one not just for the Department for the Environment but across the whole of government. We have to ensure that in many respects we are able bank some of the improvements that we have seen in air pollution. To support the expansion of alternatives to public transport, particularly for the 40% or so of commuters whose journey is less than three miles, we have announced a wide package of measures, including £2 billion for cycling and walking, accelerated work on the introduction of e-scooters—which is very good news—and the deployment of tech expertise to help people avoid congested travel routes. We will provide £2 billion of funding for active travel, which I believe is the largest-ever commitment by any Government to help transform the manner in which we travel.

My Lords, these improvements in air quality have come at a terrible cost. Does the Minister agree that, post-Covid, it is possible both to embed environmental gains and to provide the essential economic stimulus the country will need through the sorts of measures that he has just been talking about—such as investment in sustainable infrastructure, in transport and in training for the green economy—so that we really do build back better?

It is essential that decisions we make today have at their heart a commitment to long-term sustainability and resilience, both in our domestic actions and in our global outreach—through, for example, the Department for International Development. That thread should run through all government decisions in all departments. That is why we are so pleased to hear the commitments by the Department for Transport, the Secretary of State for BEIS—who is also the president of COP—and other departments of government. There is no doubt in my mind that this Government recognise that out of the ashes of this appalling disaster we have an opportunity to make decisions which will pass the test of the time. The Prime Minister himself—[inaudible.]

My Lords, better air quality is the only benefit of this lockdown. Figures for the spread of the disease and deaths from it here and in other countries indicate that the areas most hit are those which are highly polluted or have heavy congestion. Will the Government consider producing guidance, requests and eventually powers to get local authorities to introduce congestion charging, parking restrictions and pure banning of bad vehicles from such areas in future? Most of the powers for local authorities exist in the 1999 Act, but they require reinforcing. Will such reinforcement be in the forthcoming Environment Bill? I declare an interest as the honorary president of Environmental Protection UK.

The actions the Government are already taking are entirely consistent with the need to tackle air pollution, which is the most serious environmental health threat to humans. The clean air strategy which we published in January last year was praised by the World Health Organization as an example for the rest of the world to follow. One of its key commitments was that the Government would produce primary legislation on air quality. That request has been answered in the Environment Bill, which includes measures to improve air quality at its heart. It is the first Environment Bill for 20 years. It commits us to setting very ambitious targets for fine particulate matter, which is the pollutant of most concern to human health; it will give local authorities a clear framework and simple-to-use powers to address air quality in their areas; and it provides government with new powers to enforce environmental standards for vehicles. Of course, the Environment Bill goes far beyond issues such as air pollution. At its heart is a commitment that we should leave the environment in a significantly better shape than when we inherited it.

My Lords, as other speakers have said, we have seen that people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions are having a holiday from their symptoms as a result of there being fewer cars and less traffic on the road and fewer planes in the air. The Minister said that he wants to the UK to be a world leader. It should be. It must be on climate change, and tackling climate change has to take precedence over economic recovery. Can the Minister assure us that he will press the Government to follow this route?

That is a commitment that not only am I happy to make but that the Government as a whole can make. We do not believe that there is a choice between economic recovery and tackling climate change. Indeed, if we are to resolve the issue of climate change and broader environmental damage, it will be because we have reconciled economic growth with the reality that we live in a finite world where our impacts on the planet have direct implications for future generations. In my view, the choice between economic recovery and environmental action is a false one.

My Lords, while it is welcome to see more electric buses replacing diesel buses in London and other big cities, can my noble friend explain what sustainable source of energy will drive these buses and all the electric cars that are envisaged for the future?

The Statement made by the Department for Transport a few days ago included increased investment in charging networks throughout our cities, which has direct implications for private car use. Equally, we are ramping up investment in transforming our buses from being in many cases very highly polluting to being as close to zero-emission as possible. On the whole, the dominant thrust in technologies is in the direction of electric travel, but it will be for the market to determine ultimately what is the best value for money in delivering clean transport for the future.

My Lords, as we have made comparatively little progress on this Question, I will allow a couple more minutes.

My Lords, an area that tends to get overlooked is air quality in the domestic environment, and of course home is where we have been spending most of our time in recent weeks. In January, NICE published guidelines including recommendations for research. What steps are the Government taking to encourage research in this area and increase public awareness of air quality in our own homes?

We have done a great deal of real-time monitoring in recent months, particularly during this coronavirus period. We have determined that road traffic has reduced by more than half since lockdown started, public transport use is at less than 20% of usual levels, electricity demand is down 18% since lockdown began, and so on. Unfortunately, data on domestic emissions—air quality within the home —is much harder to come by. We continue to process the data we are gathering, but I cannot give a clearer answer at this stage.

Given the preliminary evidence of a link between polluting air and higher death rates from Covid-19, can the Minister explain the decision of the Joint Air Quality Unit to delay the rollout of clean air zones across the country at the very time, as colleagues have said, when action on dirty air is most needed?

The request to delay the clean air zones came directly from Leeds and Birmingham. It follows the reality that has I think affected every local authority and department of government: numerous personnel have been sidetracked by their need to address this immediate crisis. The Government responded to that request positively, but it does not in any way diminish our recognition that clean air zones are an essential, necessary part of our efforts to bring us in line with the air quality targets we have set ourselves.

My Lords, the time allowed for that Question has more than elapsed. We come to the next Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence of Clarendon.