On the 26th October Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer held a debate “That this House takes note of the impact of air and water pollution on the environment and public health.” The Bishop of Salisbury the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam spoke to commend the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy but went on to focus on areas of air and water pollution where more work was needed.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate and for her introduction to it and for the contributions so far. It is a debate in which the glass is both half full and half empty. The health impacts of air pollution and water pollution are such that we cannot afford to be complacent in this area. It is also an area of debate in which there are “alternative facts”. Therefore, it is important to keep rehearsing them and to see what gives in the discussion.
At the Dorset Climate Change Conference last Saturday, there was a very serious discussion about the nature and definition of fossil fuel subsidies. The local MP was said not to recognise that there are fossil fuel subsidies, but others quoted published papers that used the same sorts of figures that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, used in her introduction. They might be in the region of $6 billion and possibly as high as $10 billion. There is clearly a disparity about that, but if those figures are anywhere near correct, that is seven times the subsidy available to green energy. It is easier to get to very specific examples where there will be less debate. For example, the subsidies for diesel for refrigeration units mean that that is hardly taxed. That provides a perverse incentive for supermarkets and others to continue to use diesel. That has a big impact in the capital.
Since Monday, we have had the T-charge on older diesel cars. Would it be possible, in addition to reinvesting in cleaner transport, for this money to be used to combat pollution by the sorts of mitigation that have been mentioned already by a number of contributors to this debate, but specifically for what are called ozone gardens? Ozone gardens are planted with plants sensitive to ozone pollution such as snap beans, wheat, clover, common milkweed and cutleaf coneflower, which react visibly, warning when ozone pollution gets high, and creeping bentgrass, red ivy and purple spiderwort, which are efficient at capturing particles. There is only one ozone garden in this country, in Sheffield. They are quite popular in the United States. But I am pleased to announce to your Lordships that the first in the capital is planned for a churchyard, close to City Hall.
Water is such a precious commodity—70% of the Earth is made up of water. A really inspiring exhibition and series of conferences earlier this year called Just Water linked churches and cathedrals around the world—St Paul’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. The Archbishop of Cape Town, who was here launching the exhibition and discussion, talked about water in sacramental terms as precious, but the title of his talk used a very telling phrase: “Water is Life, Sanitation is Dignity”. More people have access to mobile phones than to sanitary facilities such as water closets. That is a telling figure. The sustainable development goals envisage that by 2030 safe water will be available to everyone. We will make progress with the sustainable development goals only if we pay attention to poverty and climate change.
Like others in the House, I very much welcome the Government’s clean growth strategy, but what measures will the Government take to pursue the efforts to which we committed at Paris to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius? It is such a strong and difficult aim, but what are we actually going to do to pursue that? How will the clean growth strategy be further developed to ensure that the UK will achieve the fourth and fifth carbon budgets? A big task is ahead of us.
Like others, I am concerned in relation to water and the huge problem of microplastic particles. They are found in freshwater environments in this country in places quite remote from populations. The Government estimate that something like 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year, posing a serious threat to our natural and marine environment. Experts estimate that plastic is ingested by 31 species of marine mammals and over 100 species of seabirds. I welcome the Government’s efforts so far. The glass is very definitely half full, but, my goodness, there is work to be done. I urge more ambition in the way that we look forward to the publication of legislation to ban microbeads later this year.
A number of Peers responded to points raised by the Bishop:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con) [Responding for the Government]: …I am very much looking forward to visiting in every diocese an ozone garden, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury outlined. While these achievements show what we can achieve, we know that more must be done. The evidence of the damage from poor air quality to health and the environment has grown significantly in recent years. The most immediate challenge is tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads—the only statutory air quality limit that the UK is currently failing to meet. In 2008, the UK Government, I am sure in good faith, signed up to tougher standards, based on the assumption that they would solve our roadside air quality problem, but this of course was to no avail. Current Euro 6 diesels emit, on average, six times the laboratory test limit. We should all be pleased that our country led the way in securing the new real driving emissions testing.
Baroness Randerson: We are a long way off it and have not got very far in the last year or so. ….The right reverend Prelate referred to microplastic contamination and its impact, not just in the sea but on our water supply through the ingestion of microplastic beads. That demonstrates to me that we have to work in concert across the world, with other nations.
Rivers present a constant challenge because four out of five of our rivers in England and Wales fail to meet good ecological standards, although my noble friend Lord Lee pointed out the importance of the improvements. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, for his comments on marine pollution and for mentioning several campaigns on it. I also mention the work done by Sky News, which has run a long-standing campaign on plastic pollution in the sea…
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab): …The right reverend Prelate referred to the Government’s clean growth strategy, which indeed sets some lofty ambitions to deliver a low-carbon economy and an improved natural environment, including by tackling pollution. But as he pointed out, it is already failing to deliver on its own climate change targets, and this new strategy is woefully short on measurable targets for the short term, which is what we need and which are vital to address the issues before us today. Perhaps the Minister can update us on progress on meeting those targets.
Meanwhile, the issue of air pollution needs national leadership now. Thankfully, Sadiq Khan has stepped into the vacuum, and other mayors are following suit. But the Government’s overall plan to pass the problem down to local authorities is simply not working. The latest government statistics show that the number of local authorities missing air quality targets reached a seven-year high last year: 278 of the 391 councils are now declared to have air quality objectives which are not being met. This is up from 258 in 2010….
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I am also very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for telling us about ozone gardens, which I had certainly never heard of. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford for the very vivid picture he painted of what a clean river means, not only in aesthetic terms but in economic and recreational terms.