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The UK Shows How Governments Can Reduce Emissions

The United Kingdom grapples with air pollution

By 2040, the UK could see an end to the production of new diesel and gas vehicles. This ambitious new step comes on the heels of continued calls for air pollution reform all across the UK, but particularly within urban areas. It also marks the arguably largest single step the UK government has taken toward securing a greener and fresher future for the nation. However, not everybody is sold on the reforms. Some see the promises of an all-electric transportation system as mostly political and ultimately empty.

Clean Air Versus Environmentalism

One area of confusion on this topic is the impetus for drastically changing the laws on vehicle production. While many environmentalists applaud this legislation as an anti-greenhouse gas measure, the stated reasoning behind the law is somewhat different. Public health ministers have deemed air pollution one of the most significant contributors to early and unnecessary deaths throughout the UK, citing smog-choked industrial areas throughout England’s urban zones.

While encouraging the production of electric vehicles throughout the UK will both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the air quality of the area, this may not always be the case for future legislation. Should an unlikely conflict arise between improving an area’s air quality and its gas emissions — say, an enormous and smelly compost initiative — it is difficult to say which side the government will follow. By stating its interest in protecting the citizenry from poor air quality, efficiently and effectively opposing carbon emissions could take the back seat.

Air Pollution in The UK

The problem of air pollution within the United Kingdom is a serious one. Dating as far back as the industrial revolution, the UK has seen the growth of airborne soot and smog, and a precipitous rise in lung cancer and other respiratory diseases related to extremely poor air quality. A report published in October of 2017 found that some 44 cities throughout the nation have air that is below a breathable standard. Millions of British citizens are facing heart disease, respiratory issues, and premature death as a result.

The new law has been undertaken in response to growing unrest and calls for air pollution reform. The air pollution — commonly linked to outputs of the industrial sectors — has been studied and understood as a growing threat to individuals. The longer someone lives in the contaminated area, the more symptoms will manifest and compound on one another. Some 40,000 early deaths have been attributed to air pollution in the past year, making it the top priority for health officials throughout the country.

Current Government Initiatives

Despite advocating a fairly strong central government, up until this most recent law the UK has remained relatively laissez-faire on the matter. The government website seems to prioritize controls by the local councils for areas of particularly poor air quality and does not suggest any specific action. For the worst areas, a council can declare an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA), which will presumably allocate further government resources.

Individuals are forbidden to release “dark smoke” from their chimneys and boilers, as it typically contains a greater percentage of particulate matter and is significantly more harmful than lighter smoke. The industrial areas are held to the same standard but can be exempt assuming they do not directly impact the health of the local population. However, given the distance that smog can drift with the wind, dark smoke released in one area can easily migrate to another.

Electric Vehicles

Reactions to the petrol and diesel ban have been mixed. Many are glad to see the UK government taking an active role in the major health crisis facing the country, and see the reform as a huge step toward cleaner air in the future. However, others point to the fact that the majority of air pollution in and around the UK cities comes from industrial plants, and tightening restrictions on their output could be a more effective step to preventing the issue altogether.


Image credit: Friends of the Earth Scotland, courtesy Flickr

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