Air quality: the battle begins in earnest

Matthew Farrow, EIC

September sees the ramping up of campaigns to resolve Britain’s air quality issues. Time for business to get its voice heard, writes Matthew Farrow.

Over the next few months air quality will complete its move from being a relatively low key topic, of interest only to technical experts and single issue campaigners, to being a mainstream political issue capable of generating repeated front page headlines.

 In September we will see the Government consult on how the UK can achieve compliance with EU air pollution law – the Supreme Court has demanded Ministers publish a credible plan by year end.  This will spur plenty of debate and EIC will shortly publish evidence on the effectiveness of different air pollution controls.

“To my mind what is missing here is the voice of the more general business community, the silent majority as it were.”

 Heavy-weight think tanks such as Policy Exchange are also due to weigh into the debate, with media such as Evening Standard and Sunday Times with their air quality campaigns a willing audience.  

 At the same time I think we will continue to see air quality concerns become the weapon of choice of the anti-Heathrow expansion lobby, while the London Mayor is about to launch a new initiative to restrict emissions from machinery on London construction sites. Added to that, the emergence of Zac Goldsmith as a frontrunner in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as London Mayor will mean that green issues in general, and air quality in particular, will have a real prominence in the campaign leading up to the Mayoral election next May.

So far though, while there has been a welcome increase in mainstream media coverage of air quality, the voices being heard are those with a very direct professional or commercial interest in the debate.  So a typical news story about the often appalling levels of NOx or particulates in our urban areas will contain a quote from a body like EIC – many of my members manufacture air pollution control technology.

Environmental Industries Commission annual conference 

Date: 19 November 2015 

Venue: The Willis Building, London To book: Event sponsors: Willis | Beale and Company Lafarge Tarmac | ACO Technologies

Or there will be opinion from a campaigner such as the estimable Simon Birkett or Alan Andrews of Client Earth, and then one from a vehicle manufacturer or the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders pointing out the progress car manufacturers have made in cutting CO2 emissions, the complexities of recalibrating the vehicle testing cycle to ensure real world improvements in vehicle emissions etc. 

This is all well and good, but to my mind what is missing here is the voice of the more general business community, the silent majority as it were. 

Back in the mid-2000’s, when I ran the CBI energy and environment team, a tipping point was reached in 2006/7 when it was noticeable how CEOs of major companies in retail, finance, manufacturing and other general sectors wanted to emphasise the importance to the general business community of tackling climate change.  Terry Leahy even announced that Tesco would carbon footprint 30,000 product lines.   

I remember the surprise from senior Government officials when I explained to them that CBI supported strengthening the UK 2050 carbon target from a 60% cut to 80%.  They may have been initially surprised, but also welcomed the cover this gave ministers to be more ambitious in climate policy. 

We need a similar mainstream business voice on air quality.  I can’t believe that retailers want shoppers having to negotiate streets choked with air pollution.  Or that Britain’s tourism industry – generating over £24bn is happy with tourists gazing at the UK’s world famous tourist attractions through a haze of NOx and particulate matter.   If those views were heard loud and clear, it might give ministers the political will to think more radically about what needs to be done to clean up Britain’s dirty air.

Matthew Farrow is director general of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.

This article first appeared on Business Green

Environmental Industries Commission annual conference Date: 19 November 2015 Venue: The Willis Building, London To book: Event sponsors: Willis | Beale and Company Lafarge Tarmac | ACO Technologies