Andrew Selous is a member of the Health Select Committee, a former minister, and MP for South West Bedfordshire.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions contribute to the early and avoidable death of more than 50,000 people each year in the United Kingdom.
This is around 25 times more than the number of people who died on our roads in traffic accidents every year.
The problem is not just limited to London and our big cities either, with 40 per cent of Councils in in the United Kingdom having breached nitrogen dioxide limits in the last year.
Other countries are doing better, with a recent ranking (AMEC 2014) putting London 15th out of 36 major global cities in terms of overall air-quality, behind other European cities such as Stockholm, Vienna and Berlin.
It was a Conservative government that passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, and it falls to this Government to take the necessary action now to respond to the current challenge (notwithstanding the two recent legal challenges the Government has lost on this issue).
Conservatives instinctively understand the need to conserve the quality of our air as a key part of protecting our environment.
It was a fundamental mistake to reduce the tax on diesel cars in 2008. Diesel cars are a major contributor to poor air quality alongside a number of industrial processes, gas boilers and some agricultural techniques. While our constituents who have bought diesel cars, in the belief that they were more environmentally friendly, will not be happy, neither will they be happy when the full impact of poor air quality becomes apparent.
We know that lungs damaged by nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions in childhood could be stunted for life. Families and schools near to busy roads are demanding action now. In London, nearly a quarter of school children are exposed to air pollution levels that break legal limits. In my own constituency of Dunstable, GPs have told me that children living in the middle of the town have worse levels of asthma in children living in the suburbs or in neighbouring villages.
In addition to reducing life expectancy, poor air-quality is responsible for increased rates of asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, cardiac problems and, according to some recent studies, increases in dementia as well.
In the 1960s, Japan was regarded as the most toxic country in the world due to poor air quality. Today Japan is one of the least polluted countries in the world, as well as being one of the wealthiest, and credit for that goes to the determination of the Japanese government which in 1970 passed 14 laws to get a grip on the problem. The Japanese example should be an inspiration to the United Kingdom now.
The Government has until 24th April to launch its consultation on improving the quality and until 31st July to come up with its response plan. I would suggest that three key principles should guide our approach.
First, we should be unashamedly aiming high for good standards of clean air for us all to breathe. Some European standards do not meet World Health Organisation standards for air quality, and having good air quality at should be seen as a competitive advantage for the United Kingdom.
Second, the opportunities for cleaner energy and ultra-low emission vehicle development are enormous. The solution to the problem should be part of our new industrial strategy to be a dominant player in these areas. We can continue to be a wealthy and prosperous nation by devoting ourselves to solving this problem.
The Chinese Government is committed to investing $1.5 trillion to curb pollution and develop its ultra-low emission vehicle capacity. America is developing 48 electrical corridors covering 25,000 miles in which there will be a charging point available at least every 50 miles.
Although a quarter of all electric vehicles sold in the European Union are made in the UK, we only have 87,000 ultra-low emission vehicles on our roads and there are already 555,000 in China. In Norway a quarter of all the cars on the road are electric or hybrid electric, and Norway and the Netherlands plan to completely phase out diesel vehicles by 2025.
Thirdly we need to help people, particularly those on lower incomes, to transition to less polluting vehicles. Many people who drive older diesels do so because they need good fuel economy in order to balance the budget every month. The California Air Resources Board could point the way here as it has incentives aimed at helping the lowest income families move to the very cleanest cars.
A country that works for everyone is not one where children, often in more disadvantaged areas, have their lung capacity stunted in childhood and with it the opportunities to flourish in life. The challenge is huge, but with will and determination, looking to how we and other countries have tackled these issues in the past, and seeking to be globally ambitious, it is one that we can tackle.