The UK could face half a million more early deaths from air pollution after Brexit if the government fails to take robust action, an MP has warned.
Labour’s Geraint Davies says ministers’ current plans to completely phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2040 do not go far enough to mitigate leaving the EU and its commitment to improving air quality in all of its member states.
Toxic air is currently blamed for 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year – meaning about 500,000 more people are at risk if things continue as they are – and the government’s air quality strategy was branded inadequate by the High Court for the third time last month.
Davies’ call comes as four Parliamentary committees release a joint report on air quality, calling for the car industry to be made to pay towards a new clean air fund.
“Parliament’s new report was jointly produced by four committees and reached cross-party consensus in recognising air pollution as a ‘national emergency’ costing 40,000 premature deaths and £20 billion a year,” he said.
“It points the finger at government failure, having lost in court four times for illegal levels of toxic air pollution. The government must now take urgent action to curb this public health crisis and to comply with international law.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said levels had “improved significantly” since 2010, but that ministers recognise there is more to do.
“That is why we have put in place a £3.5 billion plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions,” a spokesperson said.
The report, commissioned by the environment and food, health, transport and environment audit select committees, says car companies must pay towards improving air quality to compensate for past problems and poor health, as well as future safeguarding.
Davies added: “The report also makes clear that Brexit should not be seen as a convenient opportunity for the government to continue to ignore the law and lower standards further.
“It demands the government adopts World Health Organisation Air Quality standards to take leadership instead continuing to make excuses for bad practices.
“The EU Withdrawal Bill purports to transfer EU laws, rights and protections into UK law but fails to safeguard public health from air pollution by excluding air quality standards and enforcement agencies.”
MPs want a proper Clean Air Bill to be implemented to improve basic quality and enshrine access to non-polluted air as a UK right. Poor air quality currently costs the country about £20 billion every year.
Conservative MP Andrew Selous, acting chair of the health committee, said: “Poor air quality has been classified as the largest environmental risk to the health of the British public.
“It is even more concerning that children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions are most at risk.
“Action must be taken to combat this national health emergency. Our report calls for the health sector to play a more vocal role in tackling air pollution at a national and local level, and for a national information campaign to provide clear messages about the risks of air pollution to the public.”
Environmental charity Friends of the Earth submitted evidence to the committee inquiry to help inform the report and said they were pleased with its “hard-hitting” findings.
Campaigner Jenny Bates said: “Friends of the Earth has long been calling for motor manufacturers, as key players in the current abysmal state of the nation’s air quality, to contribute to cleaning up our air.
“We welcome the report’s verdict that manufacturers should cover the costs of scrappage schemes to help switch consumers from the most polluting vehicles.
“While the report rightly notes that to cut air pollution the need for private vehicle use must be reduced, we also need to see the scrapping of schemes which would only increase traffic levels such as the expansion of Heathrow airport, and major road-building projects.”