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Environmental targets: particulate matter

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change) 2:30 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move amendment 23, in clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

“(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—

(a) be less than or equal to 10µg/m3;

(b) have an attainment deadline on or before 1 January 2030.”

This amendment is intended to set parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 185, in clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

“(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—

(a) follow World Health Organisation guidelines and;

(b) have an attainment deadline on or before 1 January 2030.”

This amendment ensures that the international standard on small particulate matter set by the World Health Organisation is followed, and that this target is reached by the end of the decade.

Amendment 25, in clause 6, page 4, line 21, after “England” insert—

“and minimise, or where possible eliminate, the harmful impacts of air pollution on human health and the environment as quickly as possible”.

This amendment is intended to strengthen the test against which targets are assessed, to ensure that the human health impacts of air pollution are considered, with the aim of minimising, or where possible eliminating, them.

Amendment 26, in clause 6, page 4, line 29, after “2023” insert—

“or, in the case of the PM2.5 air quality target and any other long-term and interim target set within the air quality priority area, within 6 months of publication of updated guidelines on ambient air pollution by the World Health Organization, whichever is earlier”.

This amendment is intended to allow any new targets to reflect updated WHO guidelines.

Amendment 27, in clause 6, page 4, line 31, after “completed” insert—

“or, in the case of the PM2.5 air quality target and any other long-term and interim target set within the air quality priority area, within 6 months of publication of updated guidelines on ambient air pollution by the World Health Organization, whichever is earlier”.

This amendment is intended to trigger an early review of the PM2.5 target, and other air quality targets, within 6 months of the publication of the updated WHO guidelines.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

This amendment should be discussed with amendment 185. Amendment 23 is tabled in the name of the esteemed Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, and a number of other Members, most of whom are not on this Committee—and some of our names have been added. Amendment 185 is in the names of Members who are mostly on the Committee.

These amendments highlight a real difference between what is in the Bill about the additional environmental target on particulate matter, in addition to what is in clause 1(3), and the World Health Organisation guidelines. Clause 2 indicates why this is not just a framework Bill, as it includes some real stuff on particulate matter. But that real stuff does not get us to where we need to be on targets for particulate matter in ambient air.

One way or another, these amendments seek to equate the target guidelines to the World Health Organisation guidelines on particulate matter. Indeed, amendment 23 states that the PM2.5 air quality target should be,

“less than or equal to 10µg/m3”.

I understand that that would be equivalent to the World Health Organisation guidelines. In that sense, although the amendments are slightly differently worded, they do not have any different intent or purpose.

The questions are: why the WHO guidelines; what have we done so far on PM2.5 emissions; and where might the targets suggested in the Bill get us? One problem with how we have addressed PM2.5 and other particulate matter is that although the emissions expressed as density per cubic metre of air have come down very substantially over the years, levels have pretty much plateaued between the early 2000s and the present. Indeed, as I see it we will not get too much further in achieving targets on the basis of that performance over recent years. The suggested targets set out in the Bill do not take us much further down the road as far as a fall in emissions is concerned. We need to align ourselves with the WHO guidelines, so that we can ensure that we are targeting a regular and continuing reduction in emissions.

As hon. Members will know, these emissions are serious for human health. The smaller the particulate emissions, the more likely those particulates are to penetrate human tissue and lungs, and to cause long-term injury and health problems for the recipients. These finer particulates are pretty much a product of a lot of modern living, coming from, for example, tyres, brakes, diesel emissions—all sorts of things like that. It is certainly more than possible to target those factors in such a way as to get emissions down to a much more seriously depleted level than at present.

Indeed, that was the subject of a report by the Department in 2019 entitled, “Air quality: Assessing progress towards WHO guideline levels of PM2.5 in the UK”. That report, which was obviously a Government report, suggested in its conclusion that the analysis of progress that had been made and of future progress demonstrated that,

“measures in the Clean Air Strategy, alongside action by EU Member States, are likely to take us a substantial way towards achieving the WHO guideline level for annual mean PM2.5”,

but that:

“It also helps us understand where further action is needed.”

That is probably a summary of where the Government are as far as these guidelines are concerned: we are some way towards the WHO guidelines, but we are not there yet, and we need to understand that further action is needed and where it is needed. That is why we think a target, which should run alongside the WHO guideline level, is essential in or around this Bill.

What does the report state about the feasibility of getting to those WHO guideline levels in the UK? It is very clear:

“On the basis of scientific modelling…we believe that, whilst challenging, it would be technically feasible to meet the WHO guideline level for PM2.5 across the UK in the future.”

It goes on to say:

“Substantive further analysis is needed to understand what would be an appropriate timescale and means, and we will work with a broad range of experts, factoring in economic, social and technological feasibility to do this.”

However, the report says that this is feasible. It can be done, and it can be done on the basis of a reasonable timescale and within a reasonable set of means.

I do not think there is an argument here to say that anyone is setting an impossible task ahead of us, that this really cannot be done, or that we should not try to shoot for this because we will only fail and that would undermine the validity of targets. It is something that the Government’s own researchers have concluded is eminently feasible and doable. The only difference is that it has not been done or targeted yet.

I would be interested to hear any arguments why this should not be done and why we should not seek to put this in as our target in the Bill, because I cannot honestly think of any really good ones right at this minute. If the arguments are, “Well, it’s too hard,” or, “We shouldn’t be doing this right now,” or, “It’s something that would cost our country dearly,” I would suggest that the Government’s own advice is to the contrary. Therefore, I hope that the Committee can unite around the idea that this is where we should be going with our targets, and put this amendment on to the statute book.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 2:45 pm, 17th March 2020

The hon. Gentleman says we must have guidelines; I agree with him totally, but in fact the guidelines are there in the legislation. Clause 1 lays out specifically what the standard means and the date by which it is to be achieved, which cannot be more than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set. The guidelines are there, and clause 2, in seven crisp bullets, gives more detail about what is expected of the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman’s amendment looks, on appearance, to be a modest word or two, but what he is trying to achieve is a rewriting of clauses 1, 2 and 3 altogether, setting not the guideline, but a very specific target and deadline. I cannot help wondering whether the deadline, which is before January 2030, is not linked specifically to the Labour party conference motion that called for net zero carbon by 2030—something his own Front Bench has rejected, accepting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of net zero by 2050.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

They are indeed, but the date is, by coincidence, the same.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

That is a bit like thinking that, if there are two bodies in different parts of the country, they must be connected because they are two bodies. It does not follow, to be honest, because they are not connected.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman saying that they are not connected. The two dates happen to be the same, so there is a connection. It is not like two bodies in different parts of the country. The key thing is that the guidelines for which he calls are there; the deadline for which he calls is a separate thing.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government shares the shadow Minister’s desire to take ambitious action to reduce public exposure to air pollution and ensure that the latest evidence is taken into consideration when targets are reviewed. The Government take fine particulate matter, and air pollution as a whole, extremely seriously, and completely understand public concerns about this very serious health issue. That is why the Government are already taking action to improve air quality, backed by significant investment.

We have put in place a £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from road transport. Last year, we published our world-leading clean air strategy, which sets out the comprehensive action required at all levels of Government and society to clean up our air. I reiterate that that strategy has been praised by the WHO as an example for the rest of the world to follow, so we are already leading on this agenda. That is not to say that there is not a great deal to do; there is, but the Government are taking it extremely seriously.

The Bill builds on the ambitious actions that we have already taken and delivers key parts of our strategy, including by creating a duty to set a legally binding target for PM2.5, in addition to the long-term air quality target. That size of particulate is considered particularly dangerous because it lodges in the lungs, and can cause all sorts of extra conditions. I have met with many health bodies to discuss that. It is a very serious issue and a problem for many people. However, we are showing our commitment to tackling it by stating in the Bill that we will have a legally binding target.

It is important that we get this right. We must set targets that are ambitious but achievable. Last week, Mayor Glanville, the representative from the Local Government Association, highlighted the importance of ambitious targets, but was at pains to emphasise the need for a clear pathway to achieve them. It would not be appropriate to adopt a level and achievement date, as proposed in amendments 23 and 185, without first completing a thorough and science-based consideration of our options.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Bearing in mind that the Minister has already quoted from last week’s evidence sessions, does she agree that Professor Lewis made it very clear that, once we reached the target level mentioned in the amendment, the United Kingdom would not be fully in control of the target, and it would therefore be dangerous to put such a target in the Bill?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to mention Professor Alastair Lewis. Members will remember that he is the chairman of the UK’s air quality expert group. He gave stark evidence. He is obviously an expert in his field, and it was really interesting to hear what he said. He stressed the technical challenges involved in setting a target for a pollutant as complex as PM2.5, which he explained is formed from diverse sources—the shadow Minister is right about that—and chemical reactions in the atmosphere. He was at pains to explain that a lot of PM2.5 comes from the continent, and it depends on the direction of the wind, the weather and the atmospheric conditions. My hon. Friend is right that those things are not totally within our control.

Professor Lewis explained the need to decide how we would measure progress towards the target, and that the process would be challenging and would take time. It is crucial to get it right. When developing the detail of the target, we will seek evidence from a wide range of sources and ensure we give due consideration to the health benefits of reducing pollution, as well as the measures required to meet the targets and the costs to business and taxpayers. It is really important that we bring them on board.

I want to refer quickly to the report that the shadow Minister mentioned. I thought he might bring up the DEFRA report published in July 2019, which demonstrated that significant progress would be made towards the current WHO guideline level of 2.5 by 2030. He is right about that. However, the analysis did not outline a pathway to achieve the WHO guideline level across the country or take into account the full economic viability or practical deliverability.

In setting our ambitions for achievable targets, it is essential that we give consideration to these matters—achievability and the measures required to meet it. That is very much what our witnesses said last week. If we set unrealistic targets, it could lead to actions that are neither cost effective nor proportionate. That is why we are committed to an evidence-based process using the best available science—something I know the shadow Minister is really keen we do—and advice from experts to set an ambitious and achievable PM2.5 air quality target.

I reiterate that it is crucial for public, Parliament and stakeholders that they have the opportunity to comment on this and have an input in the process of developing these targets. By taking the time to carry out this important work in engagement, we will ensure that targets are ambitious, credible and, crucially, supported by society. We have the significant improvement test, which is a legal requirement, outlined in the Bill. It will consider all relevant targets collectively and assess whether meeting them will significantly improve the natural environment of England as a whole. It is intended to capture the breadth and the amount of improvement. It is very much a holistic approach and it encompasses the impacts of air pollution on the natural environment and the associated effects on human health. All these things will be taken into account in assessing the journey to the targets. I therefore surmise that the proposal in amendment 25 is not necessary.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

The Minister is quite right in pointing out that the report we mentioned did not take into account within a scientific model the full economic viability or practical deliverability of that change. If she were to commission this group to go away and do that, would she commit to the WHO guidelines after that point?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The shadow Minister knows that I will make no such commitment here. This has to be evidence based. Get the right evidence, then the decisions can be made. That is how this Bill will operate. All the advice we took last week from the experts—the people we have to listen to—very much agreed that this was the direction that we need to take. Reviewing individual targets through the test, as proposed in amendments 26 and 27, would not be in line with the holistic approach of the Bill.

Furthermore, the fixed timetable for periodically conducting the significant improvement test provides much needed certainty and predictability to business and society. We have heard from many businesses that they want this surety. It would be inappropriate to determine the timescale for this test on the basis of one new piece of evidence. However, we recognise that the evidence will evolve as highlighted by amendments 26, 27 and 185. The Government will consider new evidence as it comes to light after targets have been set, as part of the five-yearly review of our environmental improvement plan and its annual progress report. The Office for Environmental Protection has a key role. If the OEP believes that additional targets should be set, as I have said before, or that an update to a target is necessary as a result of new evidence, it can recommend this in its annual report, assessing the Government’s progress.

I am convinced there is a very clear process for all this. The Government will then have to publish and lay before Parliament a response to any such report by the OEP. This process ensures Parliament, supported by the OEP, can hold the Government to account on the sufficiency of its measures to improve the natural environment. I therefore kindly ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change) 3:00 pm, 17th March 2020

I do worry about the idea that a target should only be set if we know that the target can be achieved and exceeded immediately. If we did that all of the time, we would not have targets. We would set what we were going to do as a target and—well I never—we would always achieve it. A target has to be something that is grasping at the stars in order to be achieved. A target, among other things, should not just be based on the idea that you can do something now, easily. It should be, in part, a wake-up call and a gee-up to make sure the target is achieved once you have done the basic work that it is technically possible to do. Indeed, the Government report got us to a position of doing that. I do not accept the Minister’s arguments on this. There should be a target, at the very least to keep us on the straight and narrow as far as reduction in particulate emissions are concerned, which is based on WHO guidelines. I therefore seek a division on this.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 2 Environment Bill — Environmental targets: particulate matter

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.