Air pollution is a public health emergency on par with smoking and unhealthy eating, so says the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO estimates diseases linked to air pollution cause some seven million premature deaths a year. To combat this crisis, the WHO has released updated guidelines on limits for some key pollutants. These updated guidelines, the first in sixteen years, slash some of the recommended limits for the most harmful pollutants by as much as half.
The WHO has released the updated guidelines ahead of the COP26 summit in November and urged its 194 member states to cut emissions and act on the air quality crisis now.
UK's legal limits are now four times higher than the maximum recommended levels
To meet the WHO’s new air pollution recommendations, and more importantly save lives, the government must slash the current air pollution limits in the UK. Currently, some of the UK air pollution limits are four times higher than the WHO’s newly recommended limits.
Likely changes include bans or very high charges on vehicles – especially those with diesel engines – entering UK cities. A fast-tracked move away from gas central heating and an acceleration towards renewable energy is also expected. Andrea Lee of ClientEarth has called the new guidelines a “wake-up call for the UK government”.
Commenting on the changes, a spokesperson for the UK’s environment ministry said: “We will set ambitious targets on air quality through our environment bill. We will consider the updated WHO guidelines on PM2.5 to inform the development of air quality targets, but we must not underestimate the challenges these would bring, particularly in large cities and for people’s daily lives.”
A public consultation on the proposed targets is expected in early 2022.
Where does the pollution come from?
Air pollution comes from a variety of sources, including factories, vehicle exhausts, heating, and power generation. Natural disasters such as volcanoes and wildfires can also release harmful particles into the air. The new WHO recommended limit for some of the most damaging pollutants, which are produced from, amongst other things, burning fossil fuels, has been halved.
Diesel vehicle engines have been a particular cause of air pollution. Even though diesel emissions have been regulated for over 50 years, in 2018, road transport still contributed to over 30% of NOx emissions in the UK. NOx is a combination of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), and too much in our environment is extremely dangerous.
The new WHO limit for NO₂, mainly produced by diesel engines, has been reduced by 75%. However, it doesn’t matter how stringent the legal levels adopted are, if big companies choose to ignore them.
Dieselgate and air pollution
Dieselgate is one of the biggest corporate frauds in history. It happened when car manufacturers including Vauxhall, the Volkswagen Group and Mercedes-Benz were accused of cheating emissions regulations by fitting illegal defeat devices into some diesel vehicles. The software could detect when a vehicle was being tested and activate equipment that reduced emissions. But the software turned the equipment down, and sometimes completely off, during real-world driving conditions.
The result was illegal levels of NOx emissions. In some cases, the toxic emissions were up to 35 times the legal limit. According to one report, VW’s cheating alone will lead to some 1,200 premature deaths. The same report estimated the total number of “life-years lost” as 13,000.
Keller Lenkner UK has launched a multi-claimant action to help affected owners and lessors of vehicles claim compensation. Drivers could get thousands of pounds each if they win their legal challenge.
Commenting on dieselgate, senior associate at law firm Keller Lenkner UK, Hannah Wright Jones said:
“Reduced air pollution limits are vital if we want to address the looming climate disaster and improve human health, but it doesn’t matter how stringent the legal limits are if manufacturers choose to trick testing.
“Discovering that some manufacturers were not adhering to the necessary legal standards was a global scandal, and its impact is far from over. Billions have been paid to settle class-action claims and regulatory fines in other countries, and we believe that car owners and lessors in England & Wales deserve compensation too. Keller Lenkner UK is holding guilty manufacturers to account for cheating emissions regulations, harming the environment, damaging human health, and deceiving their customers”.