UK cannot achieve air pollution targets advised by medical experts, Thérèse Coffey admits

The Environment Secretary has set lower pollution targets for the next 10 years while ruling out a ban on wood-burning stoves

The UK cannot achieve its air pollution targets advised by medical experts, the environment secretary has admitted.

The government has now set its targets lower for the next 10 years as a result.

The target was to achieve 10 micrograms of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, by 2040, but Thérèse Coffey said on Tuesday (31 January) that the evidence shows “we cannot achieve that everywhere by the end of the decade”.

Thérèse Coffey said: “We have cleaner air. I want it to be even cleaner. Now, I would have loved to have made our target to achieve 10 micrograms [of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, per cubic metre of air] by 2030, not 2040.

“Many parts of the country already enjoy this, but the evidence shows us that with the best will in the world we cannot achieve that everywhere by the end of the decade, particularly in London.”

However, air pollution experts pointed to research by King’s College London and Imperial College London that has shown the government could achieve the more stringent targets, which are supported by the public in polls, if it took stronger action on the sources of pollution including diesel cars and wood-burning.

Coffey also ruled out a ban on wood-burning stoves, opting instead for “educating” people on their use.

Wood-burning stoves, which are usually expensive to install, are increasingly being used in urban areas for aesthetic reasons, and are now the main source of air pollution in many areas.

The government plans to introduce tighter regulation of new wood burners, which in designated “smoke control areas” will be allowed to pour out no more than 3g of smoke per hour, instead of 5g at present.

But the Environment Secretary said she wanted to “avoid fingerpointing” by cracking down on existing stove users.

The failed targets come after Coffey launched a 262-page Environmental Improvement Plan on Tuesday (31 January) including plans to restore habitat, wildlife, and create new nature reserves.

Coffey confirmed there would be no major new funding for achieving the targets which sparked reaction from farming leaders who said new sources of funds would be needed to encourage farmers to take up greener methods.

What is covered in the environment plan?

The plan builds on the vision set out five years ago in the 25 Year Environment Plan, which aim to reverse the decline in nature.

It includes creating and restoring at least 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats, 70 new wildlife projects and 25 new or expanded National Nature Reserves.

It also involves tackling leaks by publishing a roadmap to boost household water efficiency, as well as upgrading sewage treatment works.

There is a new commitment for people in England to live within 15 minutes of green space or water such as woodlands, wetlands, parks and rivers.

Commenting on the new plans, Coffey said: “Our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out how we will continue to improve our environment here in the UK and around the world. Nature is vital for our survival, crucial to our food security, clean air, and clean water as well as health and well-being benefits.

“We are transforming financial support for farmers and landowners to prioritise improving the environment, we are stepping up on tree planting, we have cleaner air, we have put a spotlight on water quality and rivers and are forcing industry to clean up its act. Whether you live in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, join us in our national endeavour to improve the environment.”

However, environmentalists have condemned the plan with Friends of the Earth describing it as “just rehashed commitments”.

Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said: “It’s unclear how others, such as ensuring everyone can live within a 15 minute walk of green space, will actually be met. There’s also a big emphasis on improving air quality which is completely at odds with the government’s £27 billion road building agenda, raising serious questions over whether councils are being set up to fail.”

Dr Doug Parr, of Greenpeace UK, added: “If this is a road map, it’s a road map to the cliff edge. Here’s yet more paperwork containing a threadbare patchwork of policies that fail to tackle many of the real threats to our natural world. This won’t do.

“Ministers want to crack down on dual flush toilets while letting water firms pump tonnes of raw sewage into our rivers and seas. Until we see immediate action (from) this Parliament to ban industrial fishing in all our marine protected areas, reduce industrial meat and dairy farming and ramp up protections across a bigger network of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, we’re in real danger of UK nature going into freefall.”