Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community. Photo: Getty
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What does the US response to stranded refugees in Iraq mean for David Cameron?

As the US reports fewer stranded refugees on Mount Sinjar than expected, how can the PM respond to the decreasing likelihood of a rescue operation?

The Prime Minister cut his holiday one day short to return to the UK to chair a Cobra meeting yesterday. He revealed that “detailed plans” are being put in place for Britain to help in a rescue operation to save stranded Yazidi refugees in Iraq.

Although insisting that it is “unnecessary to recall parliament” in order for the House of Commons to debate military intervention in Iraq, David Cameron did say Britain would be involved in an international mission to rescue the swathes of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Cameron announced that the UK would play a role in airlifting the refugees, who are trapped by Islamist fighters, from the mountain, and a government official last night added that Downing Street was “not ruling out” sending ground troops to the site, though in a non-combat role. However, in spite of growing calls for Britain to take more of an active role in the situation, the PM was firmly focused on the humanitarian support the UK can provide the trapped refugees.

Yet the news this morning from the US could change those “detailed plans” hinted at by the UK government. The US, which sent a Special Forces team to the mountain to inspect the situation, has said it has found fewer stranded people than first thought, and also that they are in a better situation than expected.

The Pentagon said in a statement:

"The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped… Based on this assessment... an evacuation mission is far less likely."

What does this development mean for Cameron? It’s clear that he was taking the lead from the US so far on his approach to the situation of the stranded Yazidis. A UK government official said last night, referring to potentially sending troops to the area, that it was, “important to remember it is a US-led plan and Kurdish forces are on the ground already”.

But now the US has almost certainly decided against a mission to evacuate the trapped Iraqis, what are Cameron’s options? In spite of the US saying a rescue operation is unlikely, it and Britain are continuing to drop aid to the refugees, which highlights the fact that there remains a substantial number of people in dire need of help from the international community.

However, from International Development Secretary Justine Greening’s interview on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, it seems the UK is reluctant to take a lead on this beyond America’s stance.

Greening admitted to the programme that it, “has been difficult to get the exact facts of what’s happening on the ground,” but accepted that, “the US has given us a more accurate on-the-ground assessment of what their estimate [of the number of people left on the mountain] is”.

She said Britain would continue doing airdrops alongside the US, as “we do know that there are many people left on that mountain in desperate straits”, but suggested that it would only take more direct action if it could follow its international ally: “The PM’s been very clear that if there is a rescue effort, we would be part of that – work alongside international partners, which would mean the Americans.”

Although refusing to say outright that there would be no rescue operation, and also declining to comment on what the UK’s reconnaissance jets, sent in three days ago, have found, Greening did hint that the remaining refugees would be there for some time. “We need to look ahead to the fact that people won’t be going home immediately,” she admitted, adding we need to focus on “how to get them through the winter”.

It seems Cameron’s options are rather limited by America’s actions. Although this restricts the UK government’s response, it could be a relief for the PM, who has been doing his best this week to concentrate on the humanitarian effort over discussions of military intervention.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.