Lesley Griffiths MS, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs
Securing a greener and healthier Wales as we reconstruct our economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic means we must make significant changes to our lifestyles and industries so all communities in Wales can breathe clean air. Today, I am publishing our proposals in a White Paper to support the development of a Clean Air Act for Wales.
Air pollution is shortening lives in Wales, with the greatest impact being felt in the areas of greatest deprivation, particularly amongst children and people living with chronic health conditions. Ecosystems in all parts of Wales are being impacted by air pollution, to the point to where we risk damage to them beyond repair, denying future generations’ access to their natural heritage. Whilst we are largely compliant with air quality legal standards in Wales, we recognise the need to reduce exposure to air pollution further and the positive health and environmental benefits this can bring. Tackling air pollution is not only a public health and environmental imperative, it is a matter of social justice.
Some of the changes needed to achieve clean air in Wales will affect certain industries who are responsible for managing emissions from their own business practices – from agriculture to energy and manufacturing. Some changes required to achieve clean air will affect all of us – the way we travel and heat our homes, the physical layout of our communities and the presence of nature around us. Some emissions are not within our control to eliminate entirely, including those which cross international borders. There is therefore a need to educate and inform, including through robust monitoring and assessments, so we can all better protect ourselves from the impact of air pollution in the way we live our lives.
Our ambition for a Clean Air Act for Wales is to place the most effective air quality standards into Welsh law and require action to meet them so people in Wales can breathe clean air, so children can play safely in their communities, so we can relieve some pressure on our health services, so we can reduce inequality.
Through delivering the proposals in the White Paper, and building on the measures included in our Clean Air Plan published last summer, we can:
- Set air quality targets, including for particulate matter, which account for the latest scientific evidence and international standards, including WHO guidelines.
- Subject targets to regular review with scrutiny from independent experts to ensure they meet the highest possible standards and achieve the greatest benefit for our wellbeing.
- Set a requirement for a Clean Air Plan or Strategy to be reviewed in full at least every 5 years.
- Make Local Air Quality Management regulation more effective. This includes requiring projected compliance dates for Air Quality Management Areas and giving powers to Local Authorities to bring together partnerships with other organisations to develop and implement solutions collaboratively.
- Better enable the implementation of Clean Air Zones and Low Emission Zones where they are needed.
- Give Local Authorities more powers to tackle idling vehicles, including outside schools and healthcare settings, and increase the penalties they can apply.
- Enable Local Authorities to better manage and enforce unlawful burning of unauthorised fuels through strengthened smoke control powers.
- Place a duty on public and private organisations across sectors to help the public understand the risks of air pollution, including through increased provision of monitoring, so we can encourage positive behaviour change to reduce the risk to ourselves and to reduce air pollution at source.
- Support greater use of nature based approaches where they have a proven ability to contribute to air quality improvement.
There is a broad consensus across this Senedd on the need to improve air quality in Wales, and I hope this consensus can help now help to see us through the difficult changes needed to realise our goal.
Today, I am also publishing a detailed report completed by the Clean Air Advisory Panel on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air quality. Early results of air quality show a complicated picture since March 2020. The first 2 months of lockdown saw significant decreases in some pollutant levels, including nitrogen oxides, consistent with reduced traffic levels. However, other pollutant levels increased, including fine particulate matter and ozone. This demonstrates the complex impact that changes in social practices and technological interventions can have.
The Panel’s report, entitled ‘Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on air quality in Wales: March to October 2020,’ contains a number of recommendations. We will consider these recommendations as we develop our current and future policies and legislation under the Clean Air Plan. The panel have indicated their support for measures to encourage more people to work remotely to reduce the impact of traffic emissions from commuting, consistent with the ambition announced by Welsh Government last year to work with businesses, public bodies and trades unions to put the support and facilities in place to achieve 30% of the Welsh workforce working remotely in a way that maximises wellbeing.
Finally, alongside the White Paper on a Clean Air Act for Wales, I have published an additional focussed consultation on reducing emissions from domestic burning of solid fuels. This is a challenging area, particularly where there are households in Wales who currently rely on already expensive and highly polluting fuels to heat their home. In the steps we take as a result of new legislation and delivery of the Clean Air Plan we will, in line with our commitment to climate justice, ensure no household is forced into fuel poverty through the application of regulations to tackle air pollution.
We must carefully balance the need to strengthen regulation of fuel types and appliances with the need to practically support people to make changes which will improve their own health and that of their communities. Many of us will contribute to the pressure on air quality created by domestic burning when we have barbeques and bonfires. It is therefore not as simple as seeking to ban domestic burning in all its forms – we have to find a way to reduce the negative health impacts of these practices in a way which commands broad community support and does not leave particular groups significantly disadvantaged.
In the present circumstances there is no doubt the most acute public health emergency we face is COVID-19. In order for Wales to emerge healthier, greener and fairer in the months and years to come as the impact of the pandemic recedes, we must take action now to set a new set of expectations around air quality and the responsibilities on all of us to reduce the impact of pollution and eliminate harmful emissions at source.
I hope all members of the Senedd will continue to take a close interest in this issue and will encourage all those with an interest to take part in our consultations to be a part of protecting the nation’s air and with it our natural heritage, our children, our National Health Service and our wider wellbeing.