Air quality in the North West: strategies to combat increasing pollution
With the UK’s biggest air pollution campaign, Clean Air Day, marked on 20 June, Move Commercial assesses air quality in the North West and outlines the strategies presented to deal with this increasing high profile problem.
Words by Lawrence Saunders
“Air pollution can harm acutely, as well as chronically, potentially affecting every organ in the body,” concluded scientists from The Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) in a two-part review published earlier this year by the American College of Chest Physicians.
Describing air pollution as one of the “most important avoidable risks to health globally”, the FIRS report presents an alarming list of associated conditions – from bone diseases and cancers to type 2 diabetes and fertility issues.
One of the most harmful and abundant pollutants is nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – largely produced as a result of road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.
Studies have found that prolonged exposure to the levels of NO2 currently found across Europe may reduce lung function and increase the risk of respiratory complications.
A recent Friends of the Earth (FoE) report highlighted 126 sites across the North West of England which have missed the annual Air Quality Objective for NO2 levels set by the government and the European Union.
The worst offender in our region was Manchester’s Oxford Road, which returned an annual average of 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3) – well above the 40ug/m3 target.
One of the ways towns and cities can attempt to tackle the problem is through introducing a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) – a defined area in which action is taken to improve air quality including fines for certain vehicles.
FoE wants more CAZ sites rolled out across the UK, and government analysis has shown the tactic to be the most effective method of reducing NO2 levels.
In April this year, the UK’s most far-reaching CAZ, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, came into force in London.
When driving within the same area, which is subject to a congestion charge, most vehicles, including private cars and vans, must now meet strict minimum emissions standards or face a daily charge.
“One of the biggest potential gains in the decarbonisation of freight is moving vehicles off the roads and on to the rail network.”
Back here in the North West, following instruction from Westminster, the largest CAZ outside of the capital is being proposed for Greater Manchester.
Covering all 10 Greater Manchester local council areas, the zone targets high polluting, non-compliant HGVs, buses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, vans, motorhomes and minibuses.
Operators and businesses that rely on the prohibited vehicles would be offered help to upgrade to cleaner models through a series of ‘clean funds’.
Unlike London however, the measures, which subject to government backing would be introduced in 2021, do not cover private cars.
Reaction to the proposals from Clean Air Greater Manchester has been mixed.
“I would like to see something with slightly more teeth,” says Dr Graeme Sherriff, research fellow in the School of Health and Society at the University of Salford.
Dr Sherriff, who contributes to ‘Healthy Active Cities’ – a research group looking at active travel and sustainable transport – believes private vehicles “are part of the traffic and part of the problem in terms of air pollution”.
The response from a trade association which represents one of the North West’s biggest industries isn’t exactly glowing either. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) argues Greater Manchester’s CAZ would “damage the economy in the North West of England irrevocably”.
“The CAZ would bring thousands of businesses and operations into its scope causing running costs to soar and leaving many with no choice but to move out of the city – a blow to Manchester’s bustling town and wider economy,” says Malcolm Bingham, head of policy for the North of England at the FTA.
“Commercial vehicles play an essential role in keeping the city’s economy thriving – delivering the goods and services businesses need to operate – and a CAZ would adversely affect the ability of logistics companies to provide these vital services,” he adds.
Bingham contends that the logistics industry is already playing its part to improve air quality by devising and implementing emission-reduction strategies through the Logistics Emissions Reduction Scheme (LERS).
Administered by the FTA, LERS is an industry initiative designed to record, report and reduce carbon emissions from freight transport.
With the average emissions from LERS members close to 13% lower per vehicle kilometre than the industry average, Bingham says the scheme has successfully demonstrated the sector’s ability to improve emissions without further government intervention.
But with transport recognised as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the UK, pressure on the road freight industry to clean up its act is ever increasing.
Published in 2018, Transport for the North’s (TfN) Enhanced Freight and Logistics Analysis Report highlighted vehicle emissions as one of the major challenges facing the sector.
Alongside substituting polluting diesel trucks and lorries for electric models, one method being considered to combat the impact of transport pollution is to move a greater goods tonnage by rail.
“One of the biggest potential gains in the decarbonisation of freight is moving vehicles off the roads and on to the rail network,” says Lucy Hudson, lead officer for freight and logistics at TfN.
“On average, rail freight produces 3.4 times less carbon dioxide per tonne-km than road.
“The current lack of East-West rail connectivity in the North must be addressed in order to incentivise and allow businesses to move their goods and services by rail rather than road.”
For its part, Clean Air Greater Manchester says its concentration on commercial and passenger transport vehicles is justified due to their more intensive use versus private cars.
Elsewhere in the North West, Liverpool, like Manchester, was highlighted in the FoE report for having several locations which breached NO2 objectives.
Liverpool City Council was mandated by the government alongside nine other local authorities in October 2018 to carry out a detailed study into how it plans to tackle air quality problems.
A spokesperson for the council told Move Commercial it is on track to submit an outline plan to the government before the deadline this autumn.
“Poor air quality is a national public health crisis which is shortening the lives of people.”
Whilst we wait to see said proposals, a number of processes are already underway including a switch to a diesel-free council fleet and a ban on taxis retrofitting higher polluting engines.
Last year, the council and NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group launched ‘Let’s Clear The Air Liverpool’ – a campaign to raise awareness of the damaging effect of air pollution on health and the actions needed to improve the quality of the air in the city.
Looking at the wider picture, Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has set the ambitious target of 2040 for the metropolitan area to become zero carbon.
To help meet that objective, Mayor Rotheram established an Air Quality Task Force to raise the profile of the issue, as well as securing
£172 million from the Transforming Cities Fund which will be used for sustainable transport schemes such as a cycling and walking network, intelligent traffic control systems and green bus corridors.
Meanwhile in March it was announced the Liverpool City Region is to become the first place in the North of England to use eco-friendly hydrogen buses.
The Liverpool City Region Hydrogen Bus Project will see the creation of a new hydrogen refuelling station at the BOC plant in St Helens, with the first bus trial expected to take place next year.
“Poor air quality is a national public health crisis which is shortening the lives of people across our city region,” says Mayor Rotheram.
“As much as we are doing locally, including our support of the Liverpool City Region Year of the Environment, we need to be mindful that this is a national crisis that demands national and international action.
“So alongside our work to improve air quality I will continue to lobby central government to act, through specific schemes such as accelerating plans to decarbonise the economy and introducing a national scrappage scheme.”