The politics of air quality management

In order to bring air pollution emissions back in line with EU law, tough decisions have to be made by business, governments and citizens across Europe. Such decisions generate resistance as it means a change to the status quo and the redistribution of power. But change is essential to improve our health and create a future with clean air.

A farming crisis

In October Dutch farmers took to the roads, driving their tractors to the Hague to fight back against new rules on nitrogen emissions. They felt they were unfairly treated and as a result several councils decided to scrap tighter rules.

Image result for dutch farmers protest

The Netherlands is currently experiencing a ‘nitrogen oxides pollution crisis’ largely attributed to industrial farming and vehicle emissions. Drastic changes are needed to fall within EU law to protect nature from these emissions, including several that will impact on the farming industry.

Farming is a leading cause of air pollution and climate change and many scientists believe we cannot protect our planetary life support system within the industrial model. Among the Dutch law changes are tougher emissions inventories for farmers and plans to change livestock feed to include an enzyme that reduces nitrogen emissions from cows. However, they will only be implemented if councils can remain united on these national regulatory measures.

Leaving no one behind

As the Dutch farmer case shows, those with the loudest voice (or rather biggest economic stake) have the biggest influence in decision making. What results is watered down measures to continue business as usual (link to our other blog), rather than the radical shifts needed to mitigate our current Climate and Ecological Emergencies. Indeed, over 11,000 international scientists have recently called for urgent action from politicians to stop ‘untold consequences’ of growing carbon and other emissions.  

In the UK a similar pattern is emerging. As a result of failing to tackle one of the root causes of pollution – the private car – transport is now the largest sectoral source of carbon emissions in the UK. Private cars take the lion’s share of these emissions and they are still rising.

Local councils have been left with the unsavoury job of trying to tackle the problem locally, in a political climate that invests in mass road building.

In Bristol, the City Council have spent the last several years preparing its Clean Air Plan. They have consulted communities across the city, including economically deprived areas, and spoken with businesses and various organisations.

If approved by Central Government, the city intends to ban all privately-owned diesel vehicles from entering the city centre from 7am to 3pm, daily, from 2021. “There would also be a wider Clean Air Zone (CAZ) where non-compliant commercial vehicles such as buses, taxis, HGVs and LGVs would be charged. A car scrappage scheme would also be launched” says the Council. “Modelling that informed this ‘hybrid’ approach shows the council can meet the government test for improved air quality in the shortest time possible (by 2025). The hybrid approach also reduces the number of lower income households directly affected by the measures.”

Bristol already has a growing number of cycle lanes and footpaths, along with e-bike hire schemes and hybrid electric buses, but more work is required to spread and connect these across the city, to increase their visibility and appeal. Continued consultations will be required to overcome barriers that communities face to ditching diesel. And in the long-term, changes in the design of neighbourhoods is required to minimise the need to take a polluting vehicle for work, leisure and shopping.

Clean air balancing acts

The process towards reaching net-zero emissions is clearly a challenge for decision makers, as is the nature of politics. Redistributing the centres of power – be that from farmers, car owners or others – will require persistence and collective power. The Climate Strikes and acts of rebellion this year are signs that this table is starting to turn. They are disruptive but they are also constructive, demanding that citizen assemblies be established so the collective voice of ‘the people’ can be amplified.

The ClairCity project offers evidence to support the important role citizens can play in the future decision making of cities and in particular the process towards a future with clean air and net-zero emissions. We will be releasing our results in the coming months so stay tuned for more information.