"As a sector we need to continue cleaning up our own act but we also have a big part to play in helping others do the same"

Whilst it might not feel that long since we finally shook off winter and the “Beast from the East”, next week sees the longest day of the year – 21 June – a date which coincides with 2018’s Clean Air Day organised by the environmental charity Global Action Plan.

It’s a reminder that the ongoing transition to a cleaner energy system encompasses more than just decarbonisation and the targets enshrined by the Climate Change Act to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The energy sector’s contribution to the UK’s GHG emissions reductions is now hopefully widely recognised – having more than halved its own GHG emissions since 1990 and with low carbon sources now consistently supplying more than half of electricity generation in Great Britain. Already, records have been tumbling this year – with the country experiencing 76 consecutive hours in April without any coal generation at all.

Of course we still have a very long way to go, but as a sector we can rightly take pride in the progress so far and also point to this as an illustration, in the face of the substantial challenges lying ahead, of what can be achieved when there is a common purpose and strategy in place.

The transition from coal to other forms of generation has clearly made a massive contribution to the reduction in GHG emissions – a target which, lest anyone forget, has been put in place because combating climate change is a matter of life and death.

But Clean Air Day should remind everyone that other emissions – such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter(PM) – have very serious consequences for people’s health as well as the environment, especially for those with respiratory and heart conditions, with both the young and old being particularly vulnerable.

As with GHGs, our sector has again made major strides in cutting its contribution – we saw a 97 per cent drop in SO2 emissions between 2000 and 2016, alongside an 83 per cent cut in NOx emissions and reductions in PM ranging from 72-92 per cent over the same period. But we still have much work to do and energy generation is still, for example, the biggest source of sulphur dioxide.

But, as with GHG emissions, it’s also very clear that only an approach that includes all sectors of the economy will bring about the necessary transformation. It was good to see the government’s recently published Clean Air Strategy taking this stance and acknowledging the energy sector’s progress.

This was underlined when we attended the first meeting of the Mayor of London’s EV infrastructure group last month (Since then we have also taken part in the launch meeting of the government’s EV Energy taskforce).

With a high population density and level of traffic congestion, Sadiq Khan has described London’s “filthy air” as “a public health crisis”. Whilst transport has now overtaken our sector as the biggest contributor of GHG gases, it is also estimated that internal combustion engines are responsible for half of total NOx  emissions in urban areas, which are particularly harmful in high concentrations.

Indeed whilst a few sceptics continue to question the scientific evidence around climate change, it would be interesting to challenge them as to whether the health risks from high levels of pollution – particularly in urban areas where some schools are experiencing alarming air quality measurements – don’t themselves make the case for the transition to a cleaner environment. If the global picture proves too much for some to comprehend, the case for action is also right in front of us with poor air quality estimated to be responsible for 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.

It’s yet another reason why – as explained recently in Utility Week – we are doing all we can to help drive the roll out of EVs to replace petrol and diesel vehicles. The 2040 deadline has acted as a starting pistol for this transition but we are clear that a more ambitious target is not only possible but desirable – and the chance to transform air quality in our towns and cities makes it very clear why this is a prize worth chasing.

As a sector we need to continue cleaning up our own act but we also have a big part to play in helping others do the same. The focus on climate change can make reducing emissions seem like a global issue but next week is a timely reminder that its importance is just as relevant outside our front doors.

Lawrence Slade will be speaking at Utility Week Energy Summit in Westminster on 21 June

What to read next