The Labour Party’s consultation document, A Greener Britain, seeks proposals about different aspects of environmental policy. In this series of articles, Redgreenlabour supporters offer their thoughts. Please comment on these contributions which the authors may well revise and submit to the consultation in due course. We also urge you to submit your own responses to the Party – whether as individuals or through your branches, CLPs, unions, SERA or other environmental groups. The deadline is 24th June.
Q: What action should be taken to address poor air quality?
Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledged to introduce a new Clean Air Act to deal with today’s plummeting air quality in particular in the big cities, writes Alan Thornett. Such an Act, however, needs to be radical if it is to be effective in getting large numbers of cars off the road.
Today even China is being forced to change its ecological direction because people in big cities have a problem seeing to the other side of the street. The associated health problems are mounting by the day.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, recently announced a feasibility study for free public transport in Paris to tackle pollution. We don’t know if this will happen but it is a sign of the times that it is actively under discussion. She told the French daily newspaper Los Echos: ‘To improve public transport we should not only make it more extensive, more regular and more comfortable, we must also rethink the fares system’.
Paris is not alone in this; the German government is considering plans to make public transport free in cities suffering from air quality problems. It wants to test the measure in five cities including Bonn and Essen.
In Britain the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport Committees have just published an unprecedented joint report on air quality.
The report concludes that: ‘Air pollution is a national health emergency resulting in an estimated 40,000 early deaths each year, costing the UK £20 billion annually. It is unacceptable that successive governments have failed to protect the public from poisonous air.’ It notes that: ‘Despite a series of court cases, the government has still not produced a plan that adequately addresses the scale of the challenge. Nor has it demonstrated the national leadership needed to bring about a step change in how the problem of air quality is tackled.’
Its recommendations are a step forward but entirely inadequate. They include:
• Bringing forward the date by which manufacturers must end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars, in line with more ambitious commitments from around the world.
• Aligning climate change schemes, urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives with air quality goals to prevent Government policy from working at cross-purposes.
• Taking greater account of the costs of air pollution when establishing taxation and spending policy.
The report is right to demand the bringing forward of the date for the phasing out of conventional powered cars from the Tories’ scandalous 2050 to a more useful 2020. There is no mention, however, of the key to this situation, as shown above, which is introducing free public transport.
This is not an advanced or futuristic demand under today’s conditions. It works and it is effective. Whilst the revenue from fares would be ‘lost’ there are big savings to be made not just in administration but in clearing up the damage made in the first place. The Report’s recommendations and conclusions can be found here.
But it still won’t be possible to get all cars off of all roads, so this needs to go alongside a move towards electric cars and vans and the transfer of heavy freight onto a much-improved railway system.
This means building the infrastructure for electric cars that at the moment does not exist. London’s black cabs are required to become electric by 2021—though they will be partially hybrid due to inadequate battery technology. The first 80 miles after each charge will be electrically (i.e. battery) powered with additional (rescue) miles covered by a small petrol engine.
The biggest problem for electric cars, however, remains the national grid which will experience a major additional demand but remains powered, predominately, by fossil fuels and nuclear. It will take the full impact of the electrification of cars, however, because electric cars can benefit from night time electricity – like storage heaters do, using power for which there isn’t a demand and would otherwise be disposed of, back into the ground.
There has to be an assurance that the additional demand will be fully met by new renewable capacity whilst, at the same time, phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear energy from the whole national energy system.
The priorities for Labour’s next election manifesto in this regard are clear. Get diesel cars off the road now. Introduce free public transport at least in the big cities, create the infrastructure for electric cars as a part of an overall plan for a big reduction in individual car usage, get freight back onto an improved railway sytem.