Farmers and landowners to play a crucial role in delivering Clean Air Strategy

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The government wants to tackle agricultural pollutants such as ammonia by requiring farmers to invest in infrastructure and equipment to cut emissions. John Robson discusses the issues

The UK government has launched a consultation process on its new Clean Air Strategy aimed at tackling emissions from a broad spectrum of sources, including agriculture.

The consultation, which opened in May and closes on 14 August, aims to gauge stakeholder reaction to ambitious proposals with far-reaching implications for farmers and landowners.

The strategy includes concerted action to reduce ammonia in farming, which the government says is responsible for 88 per cent of all ammonia emissions.

Ministers believe this can be achieved by requiring farmers to invest in infrastructure and equipment that to reduce emissions. They say farmers will be supported through the government’s new system of public money for public goods.

The logic behind the strategic thinking

Addressing ammonia emissions from agriculture is certainly a long-standing issue and the government’s multi-pollutant policy seems well-founded in that different types of chemical can interact to create secondary pollution.

For example, nitrogen oxides (NOx) from combustion engines mix with agricultural ammonia to generate a significant proportion of the particulate matter found in the air. This NOx can also combine with gaseous solvents to create ozone.

Major benefits are in prospect, but the government must deliver

The government’s new strategy comes in response to figures suggesting that air pollution is the fourth biggest threat to public health after cancer, obesity and heart disease.

The latest proposals are on top of the government’s £3.5 billion plan to reduce air pollution from road transport and diesel vehicles, announced in July 2017.

It is estimated that the action will reduce the costs of air pollution to society by around £1 billion annually by 2020, rising to £2.5 billion from 2030.

Collaboration is the way ahead, says Gove

The strategy currently out for consultation is part of a 25 Year Plan to improve the environment and the government believes it is crucial to raise public awareness of the dangers of air pollution.

Official research shows only one in five respondents felt they knew a lot about its effects. The study also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the wide range of sources of air pollution, with most naming transport as the main cause.

Environment secretary Michael Gove points out that transport emissions are only one part of the problem, which he says also includes agricultural practices.

Encouragingly, Mr Gove has emphasised that the government cannot tackle air pollution alone and advocates a collaborative approach. He says the strategy sets out how his department will work with farmers, industry and households to develop innovative new solutions to reduce emissions.

The government’s long-term challenge

Demonstrating the long-term success of the strategy will undoubtedly present challenges. It is relatively easy to measure the concentration of pollutants in the air, but convincing stakeholders of the benefits – improvements to health, productivity and the environment – will be less straightforward.

This is where the government will have to persuade farmers – who may have had to part-fund the strategy – that it represents a good investment in the country’s future.