(A version of this article was published in the Independent 20/10/2019)
The decision to ban thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters from London’s streets cannot hide the widening gulf between the public and political leaders over climate change.
Protestors know that the window for preventing irreversible climate change is swiftly closing. Meanwhile, the government pollutes our countryside with fracking, has scrapped plans for a tidal barrage in Swansea and is allowing illegal levels of air pollution to poison the public.
The government’s new environment bill is proof that Extinction Rebellion are right to protest. The Queen’s speech committed the UK to protecting and improving the environment with targets “amongst the most ambitious in the world”. The bill has failed to deliver: in 244 pages, there is not a single target set.
The UK is not even on track to meet its current ambitious target of net-zero emissions by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that the UK will miss its fourth carbon budget, which would require a reduction in emissions of 51 per cent from 1990 levels by 2025.
Achieving zero emissions by 2050 is contingent upon the introduction of urgent policy to alter consumer behaviour and the Environment Bill will only do this with specific targets. If the government were serious about tackling climate change, transport would be an obvious place to start, as reducing air pollution would serve both the environment and public health.
Aviation, which accounts for 6 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, is not mentioned in the bill, even though it is the cheapest and fastest way to increase your carbon footprint. Just 15 per cent of flyers account for 70 percent of flights: it would be common sense to ban policies such as air miles, which encourage flying, and for the government to introduce a levy on frequent flyers.
Air pollution accounts for 40,000 preventable deaths each year and in cities up and down the UK, levels of air pollution exceed limits considered safe by the World Health Organisation.
New research paints an increasingly alarming picture about the health implications of exposure to toxic air: the British Medical Journal links air pollution exposure to dementia and cognitive defects. The Lancet has found that four million cases of asthma in children could be linked to unclean air worldwide.
Unfortunately, the government’s response is not proportionate to the crisis. That’s why my own Clean Air Bill commits the UK to achieving WHO limits for air pollution by 2030 at the latest. A phased reduction in air pollution limits over the next decade will tackle the public health crisis and lower emissions.
The most dangerous type of air pollution is small particulates, such as the type emitted by petrol and diesel vehicles. The annual WHO limit for PM2.5 is 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of air, which is significantly lower than the average level in central London of 15. A phased reduction in the legal limit for PM2.5 should stipulate 15 microg/m3 for 2020, 12 microg/M3 by 2025 and 10 microg/m3 by 2030.
These targets will provide the incentive for government and councils to promote public transport and reduce car usage, particularly in urban areas. It will require the government to accelerate the introduction of electric vehicles, and to bring forward the phase-out date for diesel and petrol-driven vehicles from 2042 to 2030.
The government are claiming world-beating standards on air pollution, but standards are already stricter in other countries. A new target of 2030 for the phase out of diesel and petrol cars will bring UK targets up to speed with countries such as Israel, Denmark and Sweden and put us on track to achieve net-zero in 2050.
When Extinction Rebellion block roads in London, prevent planes from flying and stop trains, they are making the point that emissions are destroying the environment and poisoning our air.
Putting climate activists in jail and comparing peaceful protestors to terrorists cannot hide the fact that radical policy to reduce emissions is nothing short of essential.