Roundtable with Environment Minister Jo Churchill

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution held a public roundtable with Environment Minister Jo Churchill to discuss the importance of improving air quality while reaching Net Zero. Almost 100 people tuned in to watch the Minister give a short update on the Government’s approach to cleaning up our air, and answer questions from three expert panellists. 

Watch the full discussion here:

APPG Chair Geraint Davies opened the event by highlighting the scale of the problem. Air pollution contributes to 63,000 deaths per year, and leads to costs of £20 billion. Evidence has shown that COVID-19 inflection rates had been worse in more polluted areas, and the pandemic also led to indoor air pollution being increasingly highlighted as a problem. The APPG and other pressure groups have been campaigning for WHO air quality standards to be adopted by the Government to address this continued risk to our public health.

Jo Churchill then gave her introductory comments, highlighting the opportunity to decrease carbon emissions and clean up our air simultaneously, as the two priorities should work hand in hand. She used the example of replacing fossil fuel combustion with technologies such as battery heat pumps, fuel cells and solar power, which are being pioneered by businesses across the UK. We all agree with this message, but questions followed about how the Government can do more to further this agenda.

Dr Eleni Michalopoulou responded with a question about what frameworks are in place to ensure good oversight of the integrated plan for air pollution and climate change. Jo Churchill and DEFRA Deputy Director Bill Parish gave more details about the ways in which different parts of the Government are seeking to work together, and how they are consulting with external groups as well. 

Geraint followed up by raising his concerns about biomass power stations, such the Drax Power Plant in Selby, which could have a particularly bad impact not only on air pollution, but on reducing carbon emissions (particularly as using trees for fuel removes their environmental benefits). He also raised concerns about the Government target of doubling incineration capacity by 2030. 

The Minister responded by highlighting that incineration, despite its faults, can be a preferable alternative to landfill, and can provide heat to provide power for businesses and households. She also reiterated her view that biomass can be a useful option, especially when utilising existing deadwood, and other sources for biofuel aside from wood.

Another key theme, raised by Professor Sir Stephen Holgate was public awareness. The Minister spoke about the role of Local Authorities and schools in targeting car idling. She also referenced Clean Air Zones, and how the positives and negatives need to be more clearly explained to the public in advance of their implementation. She and Bill Parish also highlighted that closer collaboration between Local Authorities and innovative technology companies can allow for better measuring of air quality, and the greater use of data in showing the results of local interventions, after the accessibility of data was raised by Vortex IoT CEO Adrian Sutton.

Thanks very much to the Minister for attending and to our panellists, Dr Eleni Michalopoulou, Professor Sir Stephen Holgate and Adrian Sutton for their excellent questions.