Keith Taylor began his speech by stating that, as a member of the Transport and Tourism committee of the European Parliament, he is constantly confronted by the tension between the need to improve mobility across Europe and the impact and effects this has on the air, the environment and our resources. ‘Our transport sector is on an unsustainable path that is risking both our climate and health,’ with millions suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as a result of breathing in dangerous and illegal levels of air pollution.

Keith’s background in the European Parliament and as a city councillor in Brighton meant that his focus was on the necessity for stricter regulation and laws when it comes to the environment – ‘we need strong laws, stringently enforced and we need them now’. Keith also highlighted the role of the EU in being an overwhelming force for good in regards to air quality and the potential for extreme Brexit to become a cover under which the UK government abdicates its responsibility.

UK Government
Keith went on to mention the recent court case the UK government faced over its legal and moral obligations regarding air quality plans, in which the European Union gave the UK a final warning to comply with the EU limits of NO2 or face a case at the European Court of Justice. If the UK government does not display that it can reduce these emissions it could face large fines, with the public not only continuing to breath in this toxic air, but also having to pay for it in their taxes. Keith believes a post-Brexit world would lead to the government almost immediately looking to amend or repeal the existing legislation, either by scrapping the targets or making its own timetable to meet them. This ‘will only serve to increase a public health risk that already cuts short so many lives and costs the British public more than £20 billion’.

Keith recently published a report which highlights some of the shortcomings of the UK government’s air quality plan by analysing the effect it might have on air quality in a number of UK cities including Brighton and Hove. The findings of this report also confirmed that the effects of air pollution are not felt equally. Air pollution ‘is a crisis that disproportionately effects the poorest and most vulnerable of our society, and those that are least responsible for contributing to the air pollution issue in the first place’.

Approaches to tackle UK Air Pollution 
Keith went on to critique the main approaches of the UK government to decrease vehicle emissions. The approaches to increase road building projects and invest in electric vehicle technology are ‘fundamentally flawed and will only exacerbate the problem in the long term’. Keith stated that the main issue with the Government’s plan was the lack of detail how their measures will be implemented. There were also intrinsic flaws in the proposals and a refusal to commit to the two schemes that the Government acknowledges will most significantly reduce harmful air pollution; charging Clean Air Zones and a diesel scrappage scheme.

Instead, the Government's plan shifts responsibility for dealing with air pollution from the government to the massively underfunded local authorities. Keith said that, while the investment in low emission vehicles and public transport are welcome, this is merely the sheen on a plan that, put simply, proposes to tackle the issue of traffic-induced air pollution by encouraging more private car ownership and by expanding road building schemes. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, though, if you sow roads you harvest traffic! The Green party are currently campaigning to introduce a new Clean Air Act in the UK, which integrates EU air quality laws and legal limits, whilst tackling the need for urban mobility solutions. Keith also stressed the need for better air quality monitoring and more consistent data reporting by the local authorities, as well as more research on lesser-known and poorly-understood pollutants. He also stressed the need to make the public more aware of the potential risks. ‘Up to 80% of EU citizens will soon live in urban areas’ and the single most effective strategy to reduce the levels of NO2 would be to implement a targeted diesel scrappage scheme.

Take home message
The message we took home from Keith’s speech is that the co-operation of the UK government and the European Union is absolutely vital in the creation, regulation and implementation of air quality laws. London has recently joined the #BreatheLife network as the first mega-city to commit to reaching the World Health Organisations air quality guidelines of PM 2.5 by 2030. The coalition also includes a vision that Londoners will make 80% of their trips by foot. If they hope to achieve this far more emphasis and regulation must be placed on taking cars off the road through initiatives such as targeted diesel scrappage schemes in order to ensure the reduction in vehicle emissions.

As Keith stated ‘we are finally witnessing an increased awareness of the effects of air quality and its effects, but clean air is not a luxury, it is a basic human right’. The social inequality of air pollution means that it is a risk that ethnic minorities and deprived communities are hit hardest by. More work must be done to ensure that it is tackled throughout the UK, making sure the vulnerable people in our society are heard and helped.  

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