Part of being a local councillor means receiving phone calls and emails from journalists wanting my views on a range of topics. As a party, we have local spokespeople for certain topics depending on our areas of responsibility and the local press have a list of who to contact depending on the nature of the story. I am the spokesperson for Wokingham Lib Dems on arts, culture and libraries, but I am also deputy spokesperson for children’s services, equalities and environment. We also get contacted about matters arising in the wards we represent. In addition, I am the vice-chair of the climate emergency working group at WBC, so it will be of no surprise that I get contacted by the press in that capacity as well. The last week has been no exception with 2 environmental stories running in the Wokingham Paper, one on air pollution, and the other in response to John Redwood’s blog about climate reduction.
Data released by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has revealed that the residents of Wokingham Borough are breathing in polluted air that exceeds guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO).
BHF has been measuring particulates which are the fine particles (solids) that float in the air and are emitted from a number of sources, including vehicles, along with the various gases they emit. Particulates are defined not by what they’re made of, but their size. Larger particles known as PM10s can be seen as smoke or haze and our bodies natural defences filter them out, such as nose hair. It is the smaller particulates (PM2.5s) which are typically created by modern combustion techniques that are of most concern. PM2.5s penetrate much further into the body and can enter the blood stream causing all kinds of damage. Depending on what they are made of, many are classed as carcinogenic. The European Environment Agency did a study looking at premature deaths attributable to PM2.5s across 40 European countries in 2012. PM2.5s were credited to 432,000 deaths. To put this in perspective, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, combined were credited to 92,000 deaths. Across global studies, approximately 4 out of every 5 deaths attributed to air pollution are caused by PM2.5s.
It is the PM2.5s that BHF have been measuring and have found to be above WHO recommended limits (although any amount is not good). There is some information on their website about the study, but I’ve put in a request for further information which I am waiting for.
At the moment WBC measures just nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across the borough through diffusion tubes. Diffusion tubes measure ambient levels of NO2 and are removed monthly and tested. There’s a lot of holes with what WBC are doing (which local authorities up and down the country are also doing):
- All WBC receives is a monthly average reading – this gives them no indication of peak hours or peak days – it’s an educated guess.
- There is relative uncertainty with the data collected +/- 25% which is worrying. This is why 3 years of data is required (3 years of potentially being exposed to harmful pollutants before action is taken)
- This only measures NO2 – WBC are not monitoring other harmful pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide and particulates (and in particular PM2.5s) that has been highlighted by BHF research.
- Wokingham Borough has 3 air quality management areas where levels of NO2 have exceeded the maximum. In one of those locations, Wokingham Town Centre, the Borough Council has an automatic monitoring station that continuously measure NO2, so more accurate, but still just NO2.
- World Health Organisation maximum levels of pollutants are typical much lower than what nations adopt. For example, WHO recommends public exposure of no more than 8ppb (parts per billion) in a 24 our period of sulphur dioxide. The EU has set its cap at 48ppb.
WBC just does not know the level of pollutants in the air that we breath. Given that air pollution is the number one environmental cause of premature death in the world, this is worrying. There are a whole range of chronic illnesses people suffer from that are either caused or made worse by the poor air that we breath, including heart disease, asthma and cancer amongst others. The recent Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) report that came out demonstrated that the number one cause of death in the borough is cancer, and we are above regional and national averages for young children being hospitalised for respiratory tract infections. The fact that we’re not monitoring air pollutant efficiently and effectively is a serious concern.
With or without effective monitoring, the council is focused on the climate emergency, and the fear is that tackling air pollution will be pushed to one side. At the moment, it’s been mentioned a couple of times in the climate emergency action plan, but given that the climate emergency action plan is about reducing carbon dioxide, air pollution needs to be treated as the separate issue that it is. It needs a public health campaign around it, a bit like the government did around smoking several years ago as well as effective monitoring and a wide range of actions to go with it. I have requested that air pollution is given the spotlight it also needs, and my colleague Cllr Paul Fishwick proposed the strategy to lower transport emissions that was approved at council last Autumn. It’s a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be done.
In addition to putting pressure on the local authority to implement monitoring and measures to reduce air pollution, I’m also working with my local primary school to look at a planting scheme for around the children’s play area to create a natural shield and reduce the air pollution being breathed in whilst the children play. The play area is next to a major A road which is frequently heavily congested. Whilst air pollution and particulates are bad for all of us, they are especially bad for children whose lungs are still developing.
Yesterday morning I was contacted about the following article written by our MP John Redwood asking for my thoughts on it:
“The UK has many campaigners against carbon dioxide who worry about levels of man made gas being put into the atmosphere. I suggest today to them that the UK has been one of the most successful countries at getting its CO2 emissions down. They should now divert their energies to cutting CO 2 in places putting out much more and not cutting in the way the UK has.
They should start with China. China adds around 30 times more CO2 to the atmosphere each year than the UK. It also puts out considerably more CO2 per head. At around 30% of world new CO2 output it is surely the place to start, as its output is still increasing.
If that is too difficult then surely they could turn their talents to changing the EU. After our departure they account for around 8 times our output with a higher CO2 output per head. They still mine and burn a lot of coal, which we have stopped doing,
Germany in particular needs attention. At more than double our CO2 output there could be quick wins. They might also like to campaign about the German motor industry which is still based around fossil fuels for most of its output.
Clearly it is much easier and cheaper to cut CO2 output in a country like China where there are quick wins and easy changes the UK has already made. It should also be welcome to the EU if we offer them advice on how we got to much lower levels per head than them, as their whole new economic and regulatory policy is based around CO2 reduction.”
I have to admit, when the journalist told me the nature of the article, I thought she was joking. Whilst John Redwood is right that other countries round the world need to be changing their ways when it comes to tackling climate change, campaigners should not be taking their eye off the ball away from the UK’s role in this, particularly as the UK government continues to make decisions at odds with tackling the climate emergency. We must continue to challenge and hold our government to account and attempting to divert our attentions elsewhere is unacceptable.
Developed countries like the UK have caused huge amounts of damage to our environment with developing countries following suit. We should be using our position in the world to lead the change that is required and encourage others to follow. It’s imperative that the UK continues to work with its European neighbours especially, and continues to fight for and implement change. Within Europe, many countries from the most recent data we have are leading the pack well ahead of the UK such as Sweden, Portugal and France.
We must also be mindful that the data is always out of date. For example, the Wokingham Borough Council climate emergency action plan is using the most recently available data which is 2017. Countries like China have been making huge advances in their fight against climate change since the most recent figures were published, such as with the introduction of their solar farms, which means China now has more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world.
Whilst the UK has met its first and second carbon budgets as set out through the Paris Agreement, and is on track for the 3rd, it is not on track to meet the 4th carbon budget and has some huge changes to make in order to reach those. It is therefore worrying that our government continues to make decisions that would take us backwards. The Heathrow expansion springs to mind. Heathrow is already the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in the UK, and adding capacity for an additional 260,000 flights a year will only send emissions in the wrong direction. Added to this, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom went against the government’s own planning inspectorate recommendation and gave approval to the company Drax to build Europe’s largest gas-powered station in the North East of England. Plus, the government has given a green light to a new coalmine in Cumbria. And the government continues to fund fossil fuel projects abroad through an investment group. Other governments have contributed to this fund, but the UK government has provided 70% of the money.
individuals are doing their best with tackling climate change, this is being
undermined by the actions of our government. There is plenty of evidence
that demonstrates campaigners are right to continue challenging the UK
government on climate change.
 Smedley, Tim, Clearing The Air