A Clean Air Strategy For Plants And Fungi?

Jenny Hawley

Jenny Hawley

Senior Policy Officer

6th June 2018

We’ve been looking out for the UK government’s new Clean Air Strategy – this is the next big step forward in our campaign to protect wild plants and fungi from air pollution. Excess nitrogen from ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions is wiping out plant diversity, killing lichens and disrupting whole ecosystems. More than 96% of semi-natural wildlife habitats in England already have excess nitrogen.

Plantlife successfully raised awareness of this little-known issue with government and others last year. More recently we’ve highlighted the impact of traffic fumes on wildflower-rich road verges and pushed the government to tackle rising ammonia emissions from farming. In May, I was pleased to make the case for action on wildlife and air pollution directly to Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Now the Clean Air Strategy is out for consultation – but does it go far enough?

Promising signs on ammonia

The good news is the plan for new controls on ammonia emissions from farming – this is long-overdue as emissions have actually increased in recent years. As well as harming wildlife, ammonia damages public health and contributes to climate change, so there’s a clear case for action.

More than half of ammonia comes from beef and dairy herds, and the spreading of their manures on fields, yet these emissions are entirely unregulated. Only the largest pig and poultry units (more than 6,000 pigs and 40,000 poultry) need an environment permit, which requires strict air quality controls, and most farms fall below these thresholds.

The draft Strategy sets out three options for new farm regulation. Whilst we welcome these broadly, they don’t go far enough. Plantlife is calling for the long-standing principle of ‘polluter pays’ to be put centre stage. We’re calling for environmental permits for all concentrated sources of pollution such as intensive beef and dairy herds, as well as smaller pig and poultry units.

Experience shows that, for regulation to be effective, it needs monitoring, advice for businesses and – if necessary – the ability to take legal action. New regulation of ammonia will add pressure onto the already-stretched Environment Agency and local authorities, and Plantlife is calling for new funding for this crucial work in the Clean Air Strategy.

Could do better on wildlife

Whilst the Strategy recognises the impacts of air pollution on wild plants, and name-checks Plantlife’s work on this, it fails to translate the importance and urgency of this issue into tangible actions.

The government must do much more to protect and restore wildlife on the ground. Alongside stronger regulation and better monitoring, Plantlife is calling for the implementation of Natural England’s Shared Nitrogen Action Plans at the worst-affected wildlife sites and for nitrogen deposition to be factored into SSSI management without further delay. Local planning officers and Natural England staff will also need more support and training to tackle this issue effectively.

So the Strategy brings some good news but it could do much more for wildlife – and it’s time that Michael Gove turned his fine words into new funding and practical action.

Have your say

The public consultation is a great chance for us all to have our say on the government’s proposed Strategy. In the coming weeks, we’ll publish more detailed suggestions for points that you can use in your response, so visit our website again soon.

The deadline for responding is 14th August and you can find all the documents here.