Marco Biagi: Don’t choke at bid to improve air quality

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Noxious was not coined from NOx, one of the chemicals pumped into the air by motor vehicles, but it is a fitting word to describe it.

Along with small particles, in high quantities it poses a serious health risk, especially for the young, the old or those with breathing conditions. It is with good reason, therefore, that there are air quality limits enforced across Europe, as well as even stricter targets set here in Scotland. Friends of the Earth Scotland deserves credit for its campaign on this, raising what is not just an environmental issue but a health issue, too.

There are some signs of progress. Last week in parliament, I highlighted the enviable cross-party consensus in Edinburgh City Council on the need to invest more in cycling and walking routes, which other Scottish 
authorities should look to as an example. The volume of HGVs has also been eased by collective deals for commercial waste.

For me, the way forward is clear: if there is to be change, it must be driven locally. The Scottish Government can provide support and wield the big stick of targets and legally-required action plans – and this is a system now undergoing a welcome refresh, with a view to being strengthened. Municipalities must be on side, as we cannot nationalise the day-to-day management of every pavement, bus lane and high street in the land – nor should we, even if we could.

Furthermore, our Scottish Parliament remains limited. No Scottish administration could set higher fuel standards or extend vehicle excise duty incentives. Nor could any, if they wished, take the more radical steps that Sweden proposes, to remove fossil fuels from transport entirely by 2030.

In an answer to a parliamentary question I lodged, it has been confirmed that, bar one stretch of intercity road, urban air quality in Scotland should reach European standards by 2015. We are ahead of the UK, where those standards will not be met until 2020 or, in the case of London, 2025. Indeed, we are ahead of much of the rest of Europe, too.

However, just because Europe’s performance is six out of ten and England’s performance is seven out of ten does not mean ours should be any less than ten out of ten. It is our obligation to our constituents and to the visitors to places like Princes Street, George Street, the West End and Grassmarket, who contribute to the livelihoods of so many in the city.

Last year, after the part of the city that is officially polluted was extended I urged the council to consider establishing a formal low emission zone in central Edinburgh. In Norwich, Oxford and London, as just one measure local authorities have imposed minimum standards on buses entering their city centre. Lothian Buses have long shown a visible commitment to greening their fleet, helped by the Scottish Government Green Bus Fund. FirstBus has since stepped up in response to criticism, with a 425-unit order for new vehicles, many of them built here in Scotland by industry leader Alexander Dennis of Falkirk.

Looking ahead, we need the support from the Scottish Government to continue and be extended. The city authorities must treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves and build on the action already taken.

In August, Glaswegians will enjoy Scotland’s first low emissions zone as part of the Commonwealth Games. If there is anything that can motivate we good people of Edinburgh it is not wanting to be left behind by Glasgow. What the city council described last year as “an interesting proposal” can, I hope, before long become a reality.

• Marco Biagi is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central