European Union: UK Clean Air Strategy 2019 - Issues For Business

Putting aside the day-job of Brexit preparations, the Government has issued yet another strategy document, demonstrating its green credentials. Following on from December's Waste Strategy and resources strategy; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has now published a Clear Air Strategy for the UK. The Strategy describes a compelling need (both in health and financial terms) to tackle air pollution, highlighting the progress that industry has made since the 1970s; however the Government believes that further legislative action is now required to tackle pollutants including nitrogen oxides, ammonia, particulates, non-methane VOCs and sulphur dioxide. The Strategy makes clear that we need to reduce air emissions associated with agriculture, transport, industry and even our homes.

Publication of the Strategy follows a substantial consultation exercise, which in some respects has encouraged the Government to go further than it expected in its ambition to clean-up the UK's air. The Strategy sets the scene convincingly for greater action - both in terms of the harm that air pollution has for our health, but also clearly explains the cost to the economy. The Government estimates that the health and social costs associated with air pollution in England alone could reach £5.3 billion by 2035 (and potentially rise to £18.6 billion if diseases which have less clear evidence of association to air pollution are considered).

Whilst this article will primarily focus on the impacts of the air strategy for business, we have included, for context, some of the more headline-grabbing targets which the specific policy measures aim to achieve.

Headline Targets

In 2008 the World Health Organisation (WHO) set a guideline exposure level of 10µg/m3 (10 micrograms of fine particulates per cubic metre). The UK currently meets the EU target (25µg/m3) and is on track to meet the 2020 target of 20µg/m3, however the Strategy stops short of a clear commitment, coupled with specific measures, to meet the WHO target, which has led to substantial criticism of the Strategy already.

Notwithstanding the absence of an absolute commitment to meet WHO targets, the UK Government does state that it wants to cut the number of British people living in areas that exceed the WHO target level by 50% (against 2016 baseline) and the Strategy contains clear ambition to drive down human exposure to fine particulates as quickly as possible.

Powers may be introduced to allow for localised and targeted actions, for example in urban areas where there are particular problems (dense housing, busy traffic networks, etc.).

Progress in reducing fine particulates will be monitored by the Government and the Strategy promises a review of progress in 2022 and a new Environmental statutory body may be involved in scrutinising air quality policy and other strategies linked to air quality.

Clean Growth and Innovation

The Strategy sets out the Government's belief that taking action to clean our air will lead to economic growth and increased productivity - DEFRA hopes that the UK will become a world leader, developing products and services to tackle air pollution. The Strategy also notes that the UK low carbon economy has the potential to deliver between £60 billion and £170 billion of export sales by 2030.

Key points in the Strategy include:

  • Encouraging greater collaboration between DEFRA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure a more joined-up approach to energy policies and air pollution;
  • Measures designed to minimise the air quality impacts of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and tackling non-compliance with the scheme;
  • Proposals (previously announced) to ban RHI biomass schemes in urban areas and introducing mandatory maintenance requirements for accredited installations; and
  • A future consultation restricting the ability of coal-fired power stations which convert to biomass fuels from the contracts for difference scheme (the principal means by which renewable electricity generating stations receive financial incentives in the UK).

Reducing Transport Emissions

For a number of years, the Government has tried to tackle air pollution from transport sources, for example the introduction of financial subsidies to reduce the cost of electric vehicles for private motorists; the introduction of electric buses and other low carbon public transport; and the introduction of low emission zones in urban areas.

The Strategy highlights recent action that the Government has taken to date, including the publication, at the end of 2018, of a consultation paper regarding the future of aviation. The paper seeks views on, amongst other things, measures designed to reduce the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, which are most significant during take-off and landing, and which will rapidly increase as a percentage of total emissions as energy and industry will decarbonise more quickly.

In relation to marine transport, the Strategy notes the imminent publication of Maritime 2050, which will shape the future of the maritime sector and likely address the air impacts of shipping. In addition, commercial ports will be required to produce Air Quality Strategies by the end of the year, aimed at reducing emissions from shore activities and visiting ships. These will become operationally-critical documents for port operators and those using them.

Legislation will be introduced to give the Secretary of State for Transport power to force car manufacturers to recall cars and mobile machinery where there are failures in their emissions control systems, including tampering. On the subject of non-road mobile machinery (such as off road trucks, highways plant, agricultural machinery, generators etc.), the Strategy suggests that the Government will explore the introduction of future permitting requirements in urban areas to reduce operating/running times.

In the recent Waste Strategy, the Government announced that tyres would likely fall into future producer-responsibility schemes and there is more news for tyre manufacturers in the Air Quality Strategy as the Government has stated that it will look at new standards for tyres (and brakes) to reduce non-exhaust particulates.

Rail transport also gets a mention in the Strategy and we can expect a route-map to phase out diesel trains by 2040 amongst other measures.

Reducing Industry's Emissions

Industrial emissions have been regulated for many years, to considerable success. The Strategy notes that the Government will continue its policy of seeking to improve emissions, but ensuring that the regulatory environment for business remains predictable and stable.

Reducing Farming Emissions

The vast majority (88%) of the UK's ammonia emissions come from agriculture which can cause damage to natural habitats and contributes to urban pollution. Farmers will be encouraged to invest in infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions.

In addition to 'softer' measures, such as continuing to develop best farming practice and low emissions farming techniques, DEFRA will extend the environmental permitting regime to dairy and intensive beef sectors and introduce regulations to minimise pollution from fertiliser use.

Reducing Domestic Emissions

Finally, the Strategy proposes measures to reduce emissions from our homes - whether fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from wood burning stoves and open fires, or non-methane Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from carpets, upholstery, paints and personal care products.

The Strategy proposes Government action in the following selected areas:

  • Legislation to prohibit the most polluting fuels and stoves;
  • Increased powers to local authorities to take enforcement action in the areas of high pollution; and
  • Greater provision of information to consumers regarding the VOC content of household products and, potentially, the establishment of a voluntary labelling scheme for non-methane VOC containing products.

In addition, the Government has announced that it will consult on changes to Building Regulation standards for ventilation in homes in order to reduce the build-up on indoor airborne pollution.


The Strategy is inevitably somewhat of a compromise and there will be many who think, with some justification given the adverse public health consequences of inaction, that more ambition could have been demonstrated. Furthermore, a cynic might suggest that the Government had no option but to publish an air quality strategy following the series of air pollution cases which Client Earth brought (successfully) in recent years in relation to Government inaction.

Those arguments aside, the Strategy indicates areas for action which businesses in all sectors can now understand and plan for, making important investment decisions which will secure compliance or give them competitive advantage. The Government has clearly set out its direction of travel, and public mood is unlikely to allow a softening of rules in future.

Get in touch with the team to hear more of our thoughts on this and other environmental issues affecting businesses, including what steps can be taken now to get ahead of the game.

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