With all the concern over atmospheric pollution levels in China a story may have escaped notice. The UK government is facing a case in the UK Supreme Court over its failure to reduce air pollution in line with legal limits (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21691784). The government admitted that limits would not be meet in 15 regions until 2020 (London will not comply until 2025). This comes on top of the government having to issue a severe pollution warning for London this week.
The response of the government has been to say that the laws are unrealistically strict and that the EU didn’t set proper limits on pollution from diesel exhaust in the first place. Why they view these limits are unrealistic is not clear. Do they mean given the current economic situation it is not realistic to expect pollution to be tackled? Do they mean the limits are to be meet in too short a timeframe? Does the comment imply that there is an expected time lag between introducing the limits and compliance – if so why? Does the comment relate to how the government expects such changes in polluting behaviour to be tackled within the particular political and economic context of the UK.
DEFRA stated that the government has acted to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide through trying to encourage behaviour changes in divers via tax breaks and subsidies for low emission vehicles. Likewise, there has been investment in green bus technologies (£75million) along with £560m to encourage local sustainable transport. This is the government response to trying to improve the atmospheric levels of PM10s and nitrogen dioxide, key pollutants from road traffic. In other words responsible for implementing and resolving the issue has been delegated downwards to the local level, indeed even as far as down the individual driver. Action is also indirect via tax incentives to which individuals are meant to respond in the manner the government thinks they should. Rather than direct action or legislation, the government has taken a ‘nudge’ approach to the problem, developing policies and the context or environment that they believe will provide the impetus to encourage change in the direction they want. Reduction in atmospheric pollution is a side-effect, an outcome of these nudges. The question could be asked will these nudges be effective? Likewise, how can you measure the impact of such nudges to assess if they have been effective?
The threat of court action also places the complaints over Chinese pollution in a different light. It could be argued that the atmospheric pollution levels in the UK are much lower than in China and so different criteria should be applied to the problems of the UK government. The UK is not dealing with dense smogs that clog lungs and increase death rates (although calculations do suggest that traffic pollution does cause excess deaths in the UK as noted in the above report). The pollution of concern in the UK seems to be focused on road traffic and so a linear pollution source whilst the Chinese are having to deal with point, linear and areal sources as they go through rapid urbanization and economic growth. Indeed the Chinese are having to cope with multiple sources of differing magnitudes and with both private and official institutions involved. The magnitudes of the pollution maybe of different orders in the UK and China but both are struggling to balance the needs of economic development and the pollution it produces. So is atmospheric pollution the unavoidable price for economic development?