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Government policy to mitigate the health impacts of particulate matter is too little, too late and too narrow

25th July, 2023

Airport and aircraft emissions contribute to air pollution, most commonly through concentrations of NOx and particulate matter (PM). These emissions come from several sources, including on-site power and heating, equipment to service aircraft, on-site vehicles, and aircraft.

The UK Government air quality targets under the Environment Act are:

  • to reduce PM2.5 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air by 2040 and 
  • to achieve a 35% reduction in population exposure to PM2.5 by 2040. 

However, these targets are not only based on out-of-date World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance, but they are also too little and too late.

The UK Government’s national targets for air pollution are inadequate

Concerningly, the Government’s targets relating to particulate matter focus on PM2.5 generally, with consideration of ultrafine particles (UFPs) omitted pending further research. However, not fully understanding the health impacts of UFP is not a sufficient reason to avoid taking specific action to mitigate it, and measures taken now to mitigate or reduce could be cost-effective in terms of the health benefits gained. 

Dr Gary Fuller’s recent paper on the findings of his research at Gatwick Airport draws attention to the high particle number concentrations associated with the airport’s runway, which were similar to those measured close to a highly trafficked road in central London. 

As a precautionary measure, the Government must take specific action to mitigate the health impacts of UFP.

A further point worth highlighting is the Government’s proposed monitoring plan. Defra has committed to monitoring “hotspots” of PM2.5 concentration, rather than near source locations such as airports. AEF feels strongly that additional monitors should be placed in residential areas located near airports and under concentrated flightpaths taking account of the prevailing wind direction.

Although AEF does not believe airport expansion can be justified in a climate emergency, it would be sensible to monitor air quality around airports as traffic levels continue to rebound and increase post-pandemic.

It is also worth mentioning that while larger airports are more likely to have pollution problems, smaller airports may also have issues, especially if they are close to housing or public amenities.

Lack of political will

Airports and aircraft operators have a responsibility to reduce emissions, but the Government has yet to acknowledge that improving air quality may require local caps on air traffic.

Looking at air quality policy on an international level highlights that other governments have taken a different stance. For example, the Dutch Government has limited and reduced flight capacity at Schiphol airport for noise and air pollution reasons. In contrast, the UK Government has an unfortunate record of failing to meet legally binding air quality targets. ClientEarth launched a series of successful legal actions against the UK Government in 2013, which forced Defra to increase the scale of ambition in its plans for policy action.

Insufficient funding and power for local authorities

The 2023 Air Quality Strategy (AQS) is clear that local authorities have primary responsibility for tackling air pollution. However, they are limited in their powers to deal with air pollution impacts associated with airport expansion. To deliver their duty effectively, local authorities require greater powers than merely taking part in an airport’s discussion forum.

In the summer of 2023, the Environmental Audit Committee called for evidence on the Government’s indoor and outdoor air quality targets. AEF’s response can be read here.