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Environmental news round up - 11 August 2023

Government air quality grant scheme opens for 2023

Local authorities can now bid for the Air Quality Grant to support measures to improve air quality in their area.

At least £6 million will be awarded to local authorities under the scheme this year.

Applications can either fall into one of two categories:

  • Funding for projects that will improve local air quality. Local authorities will be prioritised if they are in an area where an exceedance of local air quality objectives has been identified or if the authority has one or more Air Quality Management Areas.
  • Funding for projects that will educate the public about the risks of air pollution and projects that deal with particulate matter.

In the 2022/2023 round of funding, £10.7 million was awarded to local authorities which supported a range of proposals.

In Southampton, £248,198 was granted to the City Council in part to train healthcare professionals so they could advise patients about air quality and how to reduce their exposure to pollution; South Ribble Borough Council were awarded £53,244 to provide more schools with access to the ‘Clean Air Crew’ online learning resources to support education about air quality in schools; and Norfolk County Council received £171,545 for an e-cargo bike library for local businesses.

The deadline for applications is 29 September 2023. 

World triathlon championship athletes sick after competing in Sunderland – centre of sewage dumping dispute

It has been reported that at least 57 competitors got sickness and diarrhoea after competing in the world triathlon championships in Sunderland over the weekend. Environment Agency sampling results, not published until after the event, showed that 3 days before the competition the water had extremely high levels of E Coli present (39% higher than the previous month in the same location).

Northumbrian Water stated that it had not recorded any discharges of sewage that might have affected the water quality since 2021. However, data from the Rivers Trust demonstrates discharge into local waters 28 times in 2022. Northumbrian Water maintains these would not affect the swim area of the event.

Whilst investigations continue into the cause of the sickness and diarrhoea amongst athletes, what is clear is that Northumbrian Water is unwilling to accept responsibility at this stage, and that this marks yet another contentious moment in the sewage dumping debate not only in the North East, but across the country.


Severn Trent become the first of six water companies to face a class action lawsuit

Professor Carolyn Roberts has filed a class action lawsuit in the Competition Appeal Tribunal against Severn Trent and has warned there will be further claims filed in the coming months against Thames Water, United Utilities, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water. Professor Roberts alleges the water companies have under-reported on sewage spills.

Due to the lack of competition in the water and sewerage market, Ofwat regulates the industry. One way in which they do this is by setting performance commitments for each company, which are a combination of shared targets across the sector and bespoke individual targets. If a company does not meet their targets, they can face financial penalties and consequently need to reduce their customer bills for the relevant year.

Due to missed targets in 2021-2022, Ofwat announced financial penalties totally almost £150 million. The missed targets were in a number of areas including water supply interruptions, internal sewer flooding and pollution incidents.

Professor Roberts claims water companies have intentionally under-reported on sewage spills to avoid financial penalties, and therefore overcharged customers as their bills would have been reduced if Ofwat had been aware their targets had been missed.

This is the first collective action of this type centring on compliance with environmental laws and the reporting responsibilities of regulators. If permission is granted for the action to proceed, Professor Roberts seeks to act as a representative to all customers of the water companies and for the claim to be dealt with on an ‘opt-out’ basis. This would mean all customers would automatically be included in the litigation unless they choose to opt-out.

If all six claims are successful, it is anticipated compensation payments to customers could total over £800 million.

ACTO’s stalemate: the unmet challenge of halting Amazon deforestation by 2030

The Amazon Rainforest often referred to as the “lungs of our planet” spans across eight countries in South America and plays a critical role in climate regulation as it absorbs a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is often referred to as a carbon sink.

Brazil is home to the largest portion namely two thirds of the Amazon and in recent years has become the epi-centre of an escalating deforestation crisis. With the Amazon being rich in resources such as timber, gold, oil and natural gas the prospects of profits from these resources drives activities like illegal logging, mining and drilling. But these are not the only pressures facing the Amazon rainforest, in addition it faces pressures from agricultural expansion; infrastructure development as well as political factors such as government policies, corruption; international relations and legislation and enforcement.

There was therefore much anticipation for a positive outcome for the Amazon rainforest earlier this week when delegates from each of the eight nations that comprise the Amazon River basin Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO) convened in Belum, Brazil for a two day summit intended to halt and reverse deforestation with tensions emerging prior to the meeting over positions on deforestation and oil development. Columbia had called for a halt to new oil development with Brazil still debating whether to develop a potentially huge offshore oil find near the mouth of the Amazon River which is dominated by rainforest. Bolivia was saying that the Amazon has been a victim of capitalism, reflected by the runaway expansion of agricultural borders and natural resource exploitation noting that industrialised nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions.

The resulting ‘Belum Declaration’ after two days of deliberations was weaker than many environmentalists had hoped for with Marcio Astrini the executive secretary of the Climate Observation Group describing it as a “first step” and “Its important for these leaders to come together but there isn’t much concrete in there”. The lack of consensus on zero deforestation has certainly caused dismay to many but there was a consensus among the nations to prevent the Amazon from reaching a tipping point of no return. Some scientists say that if 20% or 25% of the forest is destroyed, the forest will enter “a process of savannisation …. and that would represent the death of the forest and loss of the rain system amongst others”. The rainforest could also become a net emitter rather than an absorber of greenhouse gases.

In the Declaration Amazon leaders have called for debt relief in exchange for climate action, agreed to curb deforestation, strengthen regional law enforcement to crack down on illegal mining and pollution and have urged industrialised countries to comply with obligations to provide financial support to developing countries. It also creates an Amazon-specific climate-focused panel to include a scientific panel of Amazon countries to avoid the ‘tipping point’.

Whilst the Declaration has not gone as far as many were hoping for it is important to bear in mind that this was the first time in 14 years that the eight nations have come together and as acknowledged by some demonstrates “an effort to treat the Amazon as a regional agenda” with signs that there will be increased regional cooperation and a growing recognition of the Amazon’s importance in tackling climate change. It is also hoped that as a collective voice the ACTO could help it serve as the region’s representative on the global stage ahead of the next COP climate conference.

In conclusion while the challenges are clearly immense, the Amazon’s significance in maintaining global ecological and climatic balance makes it preservation an urgent priority for not only Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest basin nations but the rest of the world. Developed countries also undoubtedly influence the Amazon’s deforestation through demand for beef, soy, palm oil, minerals and oil.

Electric vehicle registrations sky-rocket

It’s been reported that one electric vehicle is now being registered every minute, with the SMMT anticipating this will increase to one registration every 50 seconds by the end of the year, and to every 40 seconds in 2024.

Second-hand electric vehicles have also seen an upturn of more than 80% in the three months up to June. However, those sales made up less than 2% second-hand vehicle sales market. It’s inevitable that as new sales of electric vehicles increase, in time the second-hand market will also rise. Given the cost of electric vehicles currently remains high, the second-hand market is likely to be the only affordable option for many.

It's clear that this will (and will need to) continue to increase if new petrol and diesel cars are to be banned by the government from 2030. It’s likely that more support will be needed if electric vehicles are to become more widespread, to either reduce the price of electric vehicles or to support those buying electric vehicles (perhaps also within the second-hand market).

In addition to issues surrounding the cost of electric vehicles, there are concerns in the industry surrounding a lack of charge points. Over 3,000 new public chargers were installed over the last quarter, but it seems more are likely to be needed. This is not only to support the growth of electric vehicle use, but to incentivise the purchase of electric vehicles, allowing buyers to be confident that they will be able to charge their vehicle when required

Given the recent political controversies surrounding London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposed expansion of the ULEZ, electric cars remain relevant not only on the environmental agenda, but in the political sphere too, especially if the 2030 deadline for a ban on new electric vehicles is to be met.