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Wake up call in the fight against pollution

Submitted by on 01 Dec 2016 – 14:41

Despite efforts by the European Parliament and European Commission to put in place ambitious national caps on emissions to slash air pollution, individual member states have have agreed for a weak emissions control deal. Passionate about cleaning up the air, Catherine Bearder MEP writes why we shouldn’t miss another historic opportunity to save thousands of lives each year and costs to our health services

Air pollution causes ten times more deaths each year than traffic accidents. Yet we are still not doing enough to tackle this invisible killer. Air pollution is a national health crisis that has been ignored for far too long.

This year the European Parliament approved strict new national limits on major pollutants to be met by 2030. These limits are expected to halve the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution each year, estimated at 400,000 in the EU and 50,000 alone in the UK.

The European Parliament voted, both in committee and the full Parliament to include ammonia and methane as pollutants; for binding interim targets for 2025 to ensure EU countries are on track to meet their 2030 goals; for 2030 targets to be in line with the European Commission’s original proposal; and to exclude mercury, which comes largely from coal-powered plants. I welcomed all of this as a lead Liberal negotiator on the National Emissions Ceiling legislation, but one of my disappointments was that our call for more ambitious 2030 targets were not adopted.

During the negotiations with the European Commission, the governments in the European Council and the Parliament, the MEPs were under huge pressure from the farming sector and some of the national governments, including the UK, who pushed to exclude agricultural emissions and to water down the overall targets. In fact, in an earlier vote in the European Parliament Environment Committee, the Conservative MEPs voted against the proposals. That is why I felt it was so important that we didn’t miss an historic opportunity to put in place strong air pollution limits that will save thousands of lives each year and costs to our health services, and this is a position that the Liberal Democrats have always fought hard on.

After the Dieselgate scandal, when we were all trying to sort out what had gone wrong and how we could make sure that this deception could not be repeated, I was furious. And I am still furious when I think of the UK Government voting in favour of watering down new tests to tackle pollution from diesel cars. The Tories once again didn’t act in our country’s best interests.

By voting to weaken diesel emission limits, the Conservative government gave into the money-fuelled motoring lobby, put thousands more British lives at risk and added extra burdens on our own beleaguered NHS.

I am passionate about cleaning up our air. I thought the Volkswagen scandal would be a wake-up call in the fight against diesel pollution and that the government would stop turning a blind eye to this invisible killer, but evidently not. I have seen the impact of air pollution first hand and I know it will take yet more lives the longer we allow it to persist. There is no reason the public should have to wait another 5 years for cleaner air and there is no reason that justifies another life lost to illnesses caused by air pollution such as lung cancer.

But what happens next in the wake of the outcome of the European Referendum on 23rd June?  I will continue to lead and work hard, irrespective of external events, to keep the issue of air pollution on the agenda. We can only tackle problems like this by working together across borders. Almost half of deadly particulate pollution in the UK comes from overseas. That is why strong EU laws are needed to ensure every sector and country plays its part in improving air quality. Without these in place soon, we will not be able to include these standards in the TTIP negotiations either.  The UK government must commit to meeting the 2030 targets no matter what happens in the coming years. Brexit cannot be used as an excuse to water down environmental laws and become the dirty man of Europe again.

If we are to determinately strive to improve air quality, we must also look at the impact it has on member states’ health costs. Taking as much action as we can now will surely pay for itself in the long-term.

I have lead on improving European legislation on air quality through the National Emissions Ceiling but when the NHS is under threat from an ever-increasing desire from this Tory government to privatise it, I find myself again being alarmed at government’s announcement to expand HeathrowAirport.

There is very little desire among the people who actually live in the South East for airport expansion at either Gatwick or Heathrow. The impact on pollution would be severe and will mean London continues to breach vital European air quality standards without forgetting the impact extra road traffic expansion also brings. There is no way to describe it but as a betrayal of people.

The turbulence in the Conservative Party is nothing compared to the anger felt by those they have betrayed by giving up their commitment to the environment. Theresa May used to make this case, now she has ripped those words down from her website and scrubbed them from history.