Air quality concerns raised as reports of 1,600 dying each year

This week in Parliament I raised a topical question on the recent air pollution monitoring results for 2013. The report found that more than over 20 streets throughout Scotland breach safety limits regarding air pollution. This follows a report that found that nearly 1,600 people in Scotland die each year due to particle pollution. 

In my questions to the Environment Minister I highlighted both reports and worrying statistics. With air pollution contributing to heart attacks and lung disease it is important that the Scottish Government is committed to tackling air pollution across Scotland.

The responsibility for tackling air pollution crosses between local authorities and the Scottish Government. However with the report showing that the worst offending streets come from a number of local authorities it is becoming increasingly clear that the levers to deliver do not fully rest with them and we must see greater leadership from the Scottish Government.

I asked the Environment Minister if he could give a firm commitment on when our communities would be safe to breath air that is not harmful to their health, unfortunately he could  not give me a definitive answer to that question.

Instead the minister spoke of the emissions that have fallen since 1990, however the cause of that fall can largely be attributed to the closure of steel plants rather than a reduction in poor air quality. Figures show that in 2010 transport emissions accounted for 24% of Scotland’s total emissions, however in 2011 that went up to over 25%.

The reality is that overall, transport emissions have increased since 1990 and there is also worrying research that shows that deprived areas have the highest levels of poor air quality. The Scottish Government is right to try and promote active travel but these reports seem to indicate that more has to be done, with greater emphasis placed on other measures to reduce congestion in urban areas.

I will continue to push the Scottish Government on the issue of air pollution and you can find a transcript of my question and the Environment Minister’s answers below:

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab):

2. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the air pollution monitoring results for 2013. (S4T-00582)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Paul Wheelhouse): The Scottish Government is committed to working with partner agencies such as local authorities to tackle air quality in areas where it is a problem. Although we have seen nationally a 65 per cent decrease in nitrogen oxide against a European Union target of 41 per cent, a 78 per cent decrease in sulphur dioxide against a target of 63 per cent, and a 58 per cent decrease in particulates against a target of 30 per cent between 1990 and 2011, we recognise that more can be done. That is why we recently consulted on proposals for further action to improve air quality, and we expect to set out the next steps later this year.The outcome of that work will help to support local authorities and other partners to take action, given their responsibility to declare air quality management areas where air quality falls below standard. The Scottish Government, working with local partners, will target its efforts to deliver real improvements in those areas where air quality improvements are still required.
Claire Baker: It is estimated that nearly 1,600 people die prematurely each year in Scotland as a direct result of exposure to poor-quality air, with air pollution contributing to heart attacks and lung disease. It is clear that it is a serious issue. However, although local authorities have the lead responsibility they do not necessarily have the levers to ensure that they can deliver. We need greater leadership from the Scottish Government and a firm commitment from it on when communities will be able to be confident that the air that they breathe is not harmful to their health. As the minister will know, we are currently breaking the legal limits in a number of areas. When will that be reversed? Will the low-emissions strategy commit to a timescale to improve Scotland’s air quality?
Paul Wheelhouse: There were a number of questions there. The first thing to say to Claire Baker and other members is that, for the reasons that she set out, we certainly recognise the severity of the risk to people of poor air quality. The Scottish Government is at an early stage in developing the low-emissions strategy, but I assure the member that it is being taken forward. We recently had a consultation on local air quality management and received about 160 responses, which we are in the process of looking through and are developing proposals to deal with the issues that have been raised.I certainly recognise that local authorities and local agencies are the lead bodies in this respect, but the Scottish Government is playing a strong partnership role in a number of areas, particularly on transport emissions through the Scottish transport emissions partnership, or STEP. We are working with local partners to try to address some of the pinch points.I am sure that the member will already know that Glasgow is the one location where we suspect that there will still be a problem beyond 2015 because of the missing link on the M8. However, we have programmed expenditure to address that and it should be dealt with by about 2017-18 on current projections. Scotland is in a comparatively strong position compared to the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of our achievements on air quality standards, which are a high priority for the Scottish Government.
Claire Baker: In his first reply the minister said that emissions have fallen since 1990, but that is largely attributed to the closure of steel plants rather than a reduction in poor air quality in urban areas. In 2010, transport emissions accounted for 24 per cent of Scotland’s total emissions but in 2011 for over 25 per cent. Overall, transport emissions have increased since 1990. There is also worrying research that shows that deprived areas have the highest levels of poor air quality. Does the minister share my concern that the active travel campaign is helpful as far as it goes but that there needs to be greater emphasis on reducing traffic congestion in urban areas and on ensuring that we have the right levers in place to make that happen? Does he think that that should include a clear commitment to addressing air quality in the final national planning framework 3 and Scottish planning policy?
Paul Wheelhouse: I think that I have already made it clear that the Government has a clear commitment to reducing the problems of poor air quality in Glasgow and other urban areas, and in some isolated locations in rural Scotland. We have a challenge in terms of transport emissions in that, despite improvements in fuel quality and the energy efficiency of engines, because of growth in car use transport-related emissions are not impacted on to the degree that we would like.We have regulation of vehicles in Europe and, indeed, at UK level but not in Scotland. However, we are working hard to ensure that through STEP and other initiatives we tackle transport. The Minister for Transport and Veterans, Keith Brown, is working very hard with a number of bodies to try to tackle active travel. I have taken part in a number of joint meetings with Keith Brown, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and Transport Scotland to try to address some of the needs in relation to active travel.I assure the member that the matter remains a high priority for us, for the reasons that she rightly set out. The health and wellbeing of the people of Scotland is a key priority for the Government. I assure her that we are taking active steps to try to address what is a lingering problem but, I hope, one that will be addressed by about 2015 in the vast majority of Scotland and 2017-18 at the remaining site that I mentioned on the M8.