Sheffield schools shut under a cloud of diesel

Air quality made a prominent story in The Sunday Times this weekend with the story – Schools shut under a cloud of diesel. Air quality hasn’t, typically, made it in to the Sunday broadsheets too often and certainly when it has it has been more about the impact it is having in London, not Sheffield.

Sheffield, the city in which I live, has a well earned reputation for managing air quality. It was the first city to respond significantly to the Clean Air Act and worked quickly to clean up industry and switched domestic heating from coal to natural gas.

In recent times its air quality problems are not so much a consequence of the highly regulated industrial pollution – much more now about the completely unregulated emissions of nitrous oxides and particular matter that come from the burning of petrol and, more significantly, diesel vehicle engines.

Today, Sheffield, just about maintains a good reputation for managing air quality but to maintain that it needs to respond to the data and information it has about exceedences of exposure to the pollutants and, more importantly, act on them. The link between pollution and health is clear – unequivocal. the World Health Organisation has endorsed the science.

Sheffield does have some mitigation – one of the UK’s busiest roads, the M1, cuts right through its eastern boundary with Rotherham and it’s this road which is the biggest contributor to poor health in communities like Tinsley. It’s for this reason that the schools in Tinsley are moving further away so as to expose fewer school children to the harmful pollution.

But, whilst the City Council’s recommendation should be acknowledged and accepted, this is the same city council that has supported the creation of new IKEA store in the east of the city (which will draw people in in cars on the M1) and the expansion of Meadowhall. The proposals for a low emission zone which have been mooted for 7-8 years have progressed in so much as the Council has a fantastic wealth of evidence to base its arguments on but doesn’t appear to have the political appetite to implement it.  The studies clearly show diesel engines are the problem, particularly in built up areas in the city and on the M1. That means HGVs, buses, taxis and, yes, the private car.

Local MP, Clive Betts, calls for planning policies to protect people from the harmful effects of vehicle emissions. But wouldn’t it be a better solution to actively clean up the fleets of vehicles in the city so that those who already live in polluted areas would feel the benefits quicker?

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Official – Time to Act on Air Quality in the UK

At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that we now know, better than ever, what the causes of poor air quality are and what is needed to do it. Central to that is political will both at the national and local level. Unfortunately, therein lies the issue. Nationally there is reluctance to tell local authorities what to do and the trend has been to incentivise them to do the right thing through the provision of small pots of money to remedy dirty buses or encourage the uptake of electric vehicle charge points. Locally there has been real fear of appearing anti-car. It has meant local authorities have got themselves into a proper tangle with conflicting policies for regeneration and growth overriding policies to promote air quality.

Whilst the announcement is welcome, how convenient for it to come during Purdah such that no politician has been able to step up and take responsibility for the inaction of the current government or previous governments. Yes, this really has been a failing of both Labour and the Conservative / LibDem coalition. Instead a fairly weak comment from DEFRA A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. “It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.” ClientEarth lawyers recently told a hearing that enforcement by the court was the only “effective remedy” for the UK’s “ongoing breach” of European Union law.

Previous blogs I have suggested what the solution might be. These words were drafted when I worked for the City Council in Sheffield, a city that has a better understanding of its air quality issues than most, but has yet to make any real inroads, despite some great things happening with EVs.

So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modeled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).

Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.

Across South Yorkshire we have identified a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.