Blog : clean air

Political analysis – September 2020 | Jason Torrance

Political analysis – September 2020 | Jason Torrance

UK100 Policy Director Jason Torrance kicks off his new monthly political analysis by laying out the three big challenges ahead for local leaders.

Local authorities are up against it in these unprecedented times. Having to contend with six months of pandemic-induced health and financial hardships while continuing to take forward ambitious action on climate and clean air, has been, to the say the least, extremely challenging.

Adding to the challenge has been the fact that the UK government’s policy and legislative agenda outside of Covid-19 has been largely suspended. However, three big challenges lay ahead if local leaders are to play their part in tackling the threat of climate and putting local economies on a path to a flourishing net zero economy. 

Firstly, the UK government needs to provide adequate long-term investment, ambitious national frameworks and the necessary powers to accelerate local change. With the recent postponement of the chancellor’s upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) – there’s little clarity about what the future holds. When he sets out the next CSR it will set the direction for much local and private investment over the next four years, and either enable or disable local action on climate.

A CSR that sets the direction towards a clean, green future is surely the path down which the UK can reclaim some pride on the world stage at COP26 next year. To this end, an unprecedented mix of 24 mayors and local leaders have joined forces in our Resilient Recovery Taskforce to urge the chancellor to unlock £100bn of green investment. 

Secondly, local leaders need to be part of a long-term UK government plan that builds activity around achieving Net Zero. We have ahead of us what promises to be a huge year for UK politics that will make or break efforts for local leaders to take ambitious action to tackle climate change.

Legislation like the Environment Bill, anticipated government policy such as the recovery and devolution white paper, the results from the biggest local elections ever in May, and hosting COP26 in November 2021, will all have crucial roles in creating focus or in causing confusion.  

Lastly, it’s crucial that local leaders are able to continue to represent the needs of the communities they serve. While the lockdowns required to contain the spread of Covid-19 have opened eyes to the benefits of cleaner air and quieter streets, overwhelming support for measures to protect health by tackling air pollution emissions from cars has remained high.

With more than 280 local authorities having declared a climate emergency and many local citizens’ assemblies underway, the role of the public in political decision making on issues that affect our environment has never been more widespread. At a national level Climate Assembly UK, the UK’s first national citizens’ assembly on climate change, has been an exemplar of how citizens from across the country can come together, debate the huge issues facing us and develop well thought out solutions. 

Back in February, UK100 was called on to give evidence to this vital initiative. Our Director Polly, spoke about local energy systems and I spoke about inequality in relation to transport.

Despite what this country has been through since March, it is a time of immense possibility. As the Committee on Climate Change said in its recent progress report, “we must seize the opportunity to make the COVID-19 recovery a defining moment in tackling the climate crisis. We say to the Government: ‘act courageously – it’s there for the taking’.” 

Jason Torrance, UK100 Policy Director

How Oxford is going beyond legal targets to clean up its air

How Oxford is going beyond legal targets to clean up its air

For Clean Air Day Oxford City Council’s Deputy Leader and Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford Cabinet Member, Cllr Tom Hayes, talks about how the city is ‘taking matters into its own hands’ and going beyond legal targets.

The change in season reminds me of an old joke about Christmas starting earlier every year. Well, this year Clean Air Day is the opposite of Christmas, taking place later than usual because of the need to respond to a global pandemic—a pandemic which itself reinforces the need to mark Clean Air Day and redouble effective action. Research increasingly shows that dirty air significantly increases coronavirus infections.

This year Oxford City Council is hoping for a great Christmas present. We have  just set our draft Air Quality Action Plan to go significantly further than the government’s legal target for air pollution, and the council is hopeful that our city agrees to this approach in a consultation now underway.

We believe we will become the first UK local authority to set out a city-wide air pollution reduction target within our draft Air Quality Action Plan—the action plan seeks to go further than the legal annual mean limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of 40 µg/m3, with a new local annual mean NO2 target of 30 µg/m3 by 2025.

This action plan moves Oxford beyond the focus on local compliance by volunteering to set a target stricter than the legal target. Our target of 30 by ‘25 is based on evidence, including an analysis of our historic air quality monitoring data from 2002 – 2018, air quality modelling projections and studies, and the expected impact of the measures proposed in our action plan. 

Oxford City Council has been calling on the government to meet its legal responsibilities by highlighting the reasons for air pollution but also proposing solutions with Oxford’s Charter for Cleaner Air—the first formal cooperation of its kind between a local authority, Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth. However, with this new Air Quality Action Plan, we are taking matters into our own hands by setting a tighter target and taking forward our zero emissions policies. 

Our plan builds on a record of delivery. Oxford has achieved an average reduction of 26% in NO2, 31% in particulate matter (PM10) and 36% in particulate matter (PM2.5) at the sites where monitoring has been in place since 2013. Over the past decade NO2 levels in Oxford have decreased by 29% mainly due to the introduction of a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) for buses in 2014 and a £2.3m investment in the retrofitting of several buses to cleaner Euro VI engines and introduction of electric buses into the city.

However, we must move further and faster to cleaner air. Transport continues to be by far the largest contributor (68%) to total NO2 emissions in the city (as well as contributing to 17% of Oxford City’s carbon emissions). With fossil fuel cars contributing to 33% of NOx emissions and buses to 32% of emissions, our city council is working closely with partners to prioritise action to address transport.

Our main priorities are focused on the delivery of our Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) to restrict polluting vehicles into the city centre and our congestion-busting Connecting Oxford to reduce the dominance of cars on our roads through bus gates, a workplace parking levy, and new subsidised bus routes. We are also proposing new measures including work with schools to raise awareness of air pollution and active travel, introducing a Euro VI LEZ for buses, expanding Oxford City Council’s EV fleet, and delivering a £41m Energy Superhub Oxford. 

Our target is stretching, but achievable by 2025 only with the introduction of transport schemes such as Connecting Oxford and an accelerated ZEZ. Harmful levels of air pollution are shortening lives, hurting health, and undermining our quality of life. The people whose lives will be disproportionately affected by air pollution are the more vulnerable members of our communities.

The founding document of our modern social security state made suggestions aimed at eradicating the five “giant evils”. One such evil was “disease”, yet today air pollution blights our neighbourhoods, as it did when Clement Attlee’s government enacted the recommendations of William Beveridge. In the 75th anniversary year of the election of the 1945 government, elected figures will be compelled by the injustice of air pollution to clean up our dirty air.

Cllr Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council Deputy Leader and Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford Cabinet Member

Find out more about Oxford City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan.

Why adopting WHO standards could be an unmissable opportunity for the government

Why adopting WHO standards could be an unmissable opportunity for the government

Ahead of Clean Air Day on 8 October, UK100’s Jonny Wilkinson spoke with Councillor Adam Harrison, the Labour ward councillor for Bloomsbury and Cabinet Member for a Sustainable Camden, about the council’s air quality ambitions.

Cleaning up Camden’s air was a lively issue in the borough when Councillor Adam Harrison took up the brief in November 2017. Residents and community groups were keen to help the council do something about it while asking it to take action.

Getting up to speed on the issue, the Camden cabinet member was alarmed to learn the pollutant fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is damaging to health at any level – there is no safe limit for it in our air.

Hearing this helped to convince him that adopting the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s stringent air quality standards – stricter than the EU’s – was the only way to go for Camden. 

And he believes that if the government were to follow Camden’s lead, it would be an unmissable opportunity to demonstrate serious leadership.

With a King’s College London study finding that Camden’s plans for cleaner air were achievable, the borough is now aiming to achieve WHO standards by 2030.

Councillor Harrison said: “The government says they want to be more ambitious than the EU and take up the purported freedoms that Brexit brings. So they should put their money where their mouth is and establish something more ambitious than the EU.

“It’s a no-brainer, given that we want to be doing all we can to keep people healthy and for them not to suffer the many conditions air pollution worsens or creates. 

“The way we have to live – travel and the houses and buildings we live and work in – all has to change. There’s lots of opportunity for investment in retrofit and new infrastructure, and it’s great for our health.

“This all fits together in a way that should appeal across political parties. That’s why I think if the government adopted WHO standards it would be something quite symbolic and, with the weight of law behind it, would be an important part of solving the puzzle of how we cut air pollution.

“The whole process of Camden adopting WHO standards and the King’s College London study that we commissioned to map our path to those standards, has meant that there’s a lot of organisational focus inside the council on implementing the plan.”

Camden Council says that many measures that could improve air quality in the borough are outside its control, like limiting the use of wood burners and fireplaces. As much as 38% of UK primary PM emissions come from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires and solid fuel stoves [source: Camden Clean Air Action Plan].

Part of Camden’s Clean Air Action Plan 2019-2022 is to use its influence to lobby those with responsibility for these measures to implement policies that reduce pollution levels.

Councillor Harrison said: “I think that is something we’ll need to have a big conversation about. It seems like there isn’t even yet a public understanding that burning wood is bad for you and bad for air pollution because at the moment it’s extremely popular.”

For other councils looking at their air quality strategies, the Labour councillor recommends getting into the details of where their air pollution comes from, who’s responsible for it, and then trying to bring people together.

He said: “We can’t do it all on our own and we shouldn’t try to because we’re not the sole creators of air pollution by any stretch. It needs to be a joint effort.

“Ultimately it’s about showing what you’re trying to achieve: cleaner air, healthier travel, more equal streets, quieter streets. You need to paint a picture of what streets could look like.

“People often treat streets in public places as if they’re immutable, which is odd because they’re so dynamic. Streets change all the time. So when you try and change the street, it can be very controversial.

“But equally once you do change a street, if you’ve done it for the right reasons, people often like it and get used to it quite quickly.”

Jonny Wilkinson, UK100 Senior Communications Officer

Click here to find out more about Camden’s air quality ambitions.

Local leadership: exploring decisions on hydrogen, by Hywel Lloyd

Local leadership: exploring decisions on hydrogen, by Hywel Lloyd

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future.  Like all futures it hasn’t quite arrived; yet it’s clearly an opportunity. 

A number of countries across the globe have set out, or are setting out plans and strategies to invest in Hydrogen for their economic recovery, for example Germany and Japan.  In the UK while the Energy White Paper and associated strategy for low carbon heat have yet to emerge, a variety of agencies and organisations are energy planning, looking to plot a positive energy future for their places, and communities.

As part of the work of UK100 we have a presence in some of the processes of the regulator Ofgem, and are working at representing UK100’s collective interest with organisations such as National Grid, for example in their Hydrogen Gas Market Plan (GMaP) program of work.

Given many localities are looking to understand their hydrogen options, here’s our latest take on the wider sense of what’s the future for hydrogen – and what that might mean for a local leader.

The first thing to say is that hydrogen is not a silver bullet, yet it’s certainly one of the things that will insure we can fuel our future energy needs.  The advantages of hydrogen include its multiple uses, for domestic and industry heat, powering vehicles, electricity production and long term energy storage. 

While it will be easier to maximise those benefits if we can reduce our demand through greater productivity and efficiency in our use of energy, we set energy efficiency to one side for now as it is in the domain of hydrogen supply where it gets more interesting for places and communities.

Many can see a potential opportunity in hydrogen, which could even give a first mover advantage to a community or location, helping secure some of the early economic benefits of the hydrogen economy.

So a first reference point would be to appreciate the basic technologies for the two main methods of production:

  • Reformation (SMR), a chemical process that uses a natural gas and steam reaction to create ‘blue’ hydrogen and other by-products.  Importantly one of those by-products is carbon dioxide so this approach really does need something like carbon capture and storage to make it an opportunity in the future, most likely to work where there is a ready opportunity for carbon capture

So that would suggest near the gas fields of the North Sea or other locations where there are geological stores for carbon dioxide, such as salt caverns.  This geographical constraint could affect as much as half the country.

  • Alternatively we have the process of electrolysis.  Electricity breaks down water to produce hydrogen and oxygen (so no GHG emissions), electrolysers effectively just need water and electricity.  With 100% renewable electricity, that would produce renewable, or ‘green’ hydrogen.

Some see ‘green’ hydrogen as the nirvana of the future of heat. We should note the caveats that hydrogen doesn’t have as much calorific value as the natural gas currently used for cooking and heating, and some of the engineering in those devices would need to be changed. Domestic appliances can take up to 20% hydrogen fuel blend, so anything above that would need them to be replaced with appliances ready for hydrogen.

Clearly electrolysis has far fewer constraints on deployment compared to SMR, so the question there then becomes much more about the value of the hydrogen, or the availability of renewable electricity.

The balance of costs of these two elements of the process are a key question on where best to put your electrolysis, which in turn suggest a key criteria will be what do you need the hydrogen for?  

And it is probably true to say it is easier and cheaper to transport renewable electricity than it is to transport hydrogen.  Clearly hydrogen can be a part of the gas mix for the heating of homes and cooking by way of the gas grid; it can equally be used to support transport and power hydrogen fuel cells which some propose as a good solution for HGVs.  This could be site specific or via the gas grid; thirdly you could use it to create electricity (which might sound odd because we may have used electricity to create it yet we can taking surplus renewables at one point, storing their energy value in hydrogen and then releasing it as electricity when there is a greater demand for electricity).

So, where does that leave a local leader?

For some you will already have made or been engaged in a hydrogen opportunity, particularly where your place has the geology to support a SMR/ CCUS type approach, and ideally with central government support given the capital costs and innovative nature of some elements of the approach.

For most of the rest of us the question is more nuanced – do we lead, what’s our opportunity, or should we let the energy system do its thing and concentrate on a different opportunity?

For electrolysis hydrogen, potential options include connection to renewable generation to ‘use-up’ surplus electricity, for example adjacent to a wind farm, or connected to solar on a capped land-fill site; that hydrogen could then be fuel for a bin or bus fleet, it could be injected to the local gas grid; it could be stored for later use when ‘additional’ electricity is needed.  Other examples include using hydrogen fuel cells in buildings to reduce emissions (in place of a boiler) or as part of a local micro energy network at an end of the pipe location.  Other opportunities are being created daily.

As with many ‘new’ opportunities for a local authority it is key that the political and senior leadership is clear about the purpose behind the opportunity.  Clarity of purpose helps everyone involved make better decisions, knowing what is, and equally what is not, important.  For hydrogen that purpose could be climate led, helping reduce emissions and improving air quality; it could be about local jobs and businesses, helping manage local energy prices, costs of transition or create new businesses; equally it could be part of an approach to bring new revenues directly to the authority.

While any one of these is fine, the political purpose is different; and the necessary deployment of political capital will also differ.  Without political capital hydrogen isn’t really a priority, because budgets, staffing, resourcing and other decisions (e.g. planning) won’t all be deployed to help secure pro-hydrogen outcomes – and those tools along with local goodwill, business engagement and the like are all going to be required at this early stage of hydrogen deployment, because hydrogen is not yet the lowest cost energy option.   

In perhaps 10 years time much of the landscape will be different, hydrogen will be in some people’s gas supply; tens if not hundreds of hydrogen refuelling stations will be scattered across the country; surplus renewable electricity will be making hydrogen in a variety of locations.  If hydrogen isn’t a priority for you and your area it will arrive eventually.  


We will be working with a range of stakeholders to progressively flush out opportunities by location so do drop us a line if you are interested in hydrogen for your place. 


Hywel Lloyd, UK100 Board Member,

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Coronavirus has made people stop and think about public health like they have never done before, which has galvanised the campaign for Clean Air.

People have enjoyed cleaner air during lockdown. They have recognised the flourishing of nature, appreciated the reduced noise pollution and they have, in part, enjoyed the flexibility that remote working has brought to their lives.

These things should be safe-guarded and encouraged in a new normal and local authorities, with the right support, can use this time to deliver these changes as part of a localised response to coronavirus.

Evidence from universities around the world link air pollution with increased infection and deaths, which means it affects prevalence and should therefore be read alongside R value for avoiding a second peak.

A report published by a cross-party group of MPs that I chair, sets out a series of cross-department and multi-governmental proposals, supported by 90 parliamentarians, to keep air pollution low.

The proposals, based on evidence from scientists, businesses and local authorities include the continuation of home working, the phasing out of wood and coal burning in homes, a scrappage scheme for dirty vehicles, and changes to the Environment Bill which include Air Pollution targets and incorporates indoor air quality so harmful domestic chemicals are banned and planning regulation improved.

Most significantly for local authorities it calls for the roll-out of clean air zones, increased cycle lanes and more frequent public transport services – which will of course need the right central government support.

Having been the Leader of Croydon I oversaw the introduction of the UK’s busiest tram system – a public-private £200m 26km electrified orbital link between Wimbledon, Croydon and Beckenham. I believe similar schemes should be supported across the UK.

Greener planning and building regulations can bring in-built power generation, insulation and ventilation, less need to travel and more public transport with local government procurement boosting demand for electric vehicles on an upgraded charging grid.

These changes will revolutionise public spaces and give a much-needed boost to local economies by increasing footfall.

Further, it will encourage the UK to develop a greener and cleaner infrastructure, which can create jobs and establish a new industry and expertise that can boost our exports.

Polls shows that public support for cleaner air is at an all-time high and people are prepared and willing to change their lifestyles to achieve it. Some businesses, too, have been early to adopt flexible working and encourage public transport usage ahead of the coronavirus hitting, and many more have been forced to follow.

Likewise, local authorities have been proactive responding to air quality and have an opportunity to be more ambitious than ever before, if given the correct support.

Through a local approach people will be empowered to make the changes that will allow them to lead healthier lifestyles, during the next year or so where the threat of Coronavirus lingers and beyond.

Now, the government must embrace the opportunities of the next few months to ensure a green recovery that build Britain back cleaner and greener than ever before.

As ever, local approaches will be different and should be flexible– but they must be unified in their desire to improve air quality, and with-it public health.


Geraint Davies, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution


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