So the UK has voted to leave the European Union: what happens next? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure.
What is certain, however, is that air pollution is a serious problem. It could already be responsible for up to 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, by exacerbating conditions including heart disease and respiratory problems. And by 2030, a further 4,200 people could be at risk of premature death from air pollution if the UK fails to sign up to new legislation after exiting the EU, according to Greenpeace website EnergyDesk.
Many of the laws and regulations that protect air quality come from the EU. Some have been incorporated into UK law, but after Brexit they could be repealed by the government. Other regulations exist only as EU directives, and could cease to have force here after Brexit.
In the light of Brexit, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has outlined plans to tackle what he describes as the “issue of life and death” in the capital, warning that leaving the union could strip the public of the protection of EU clean air standards.”The EU has an established legal framework on tackling air pollution, which has now become part of UK law,” he says. Khan is calling on the government to put in place the “strongest possible” legal protections, to ensure the existing EU limits are not undone by Brexit.
At a recent House of Lords sub-committee hearing on the EU and the environment, Dr Charlotte Burns, senior lecturer at the University of York, said the UK’s environmental sector has been profoundly affected by EU membership and that Brexit has significant implications. “But the way Brexit affects air pollution in the UK depends on whether the country takes a hard exit or joins the European Economic Area,” she said. ”That would minimise the trade costs of Brexit, but it would mean paying 83% as much into the EU budget as the UK currently does. It would also require keeping current EU regulations, without having a seat at the table when the rules are decided.”
The UK not being part of the negotiating mix could also mean less pressure for ambitious clean air targets. In the short term, Burns believes that it will make sense to keep existing laws in place until they are required to be renewed in coming years. “Being part of the EU has inserted clear standards for air pollution, timetables for improvements and the right to a clean environment,” she said.
However, Brexit might not be all bad for air pollution goals. George Eustice, a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said recently that the EU was afflicted by “inertia, inconsistency and indecision”,whereas a post-Brexit UK would be “more agile” and have the ability “to act, to decide and to get things done”.
Burns sounded a note of caution. ”The UK could emerge with some flexibility on environmental legislation, but what is important is that the government makes sure it has the correct mechanisms of enforcement,” she said.
Later this year Defra will introduce proposed clean air zones legislation, but the driving force behind this has been potential EU fines for poor air quality. Given the Brexit vote, many believe there is a risk that the government will simply abandon efforts to reduce pollution.
Dan Byles, chairman of the Clean Air Alliance, says it is “vital that the government acts on air quality, because ultimately pollution kills people”. He believes one area of policy the government should reconsider is fuel subsidies.
“The government is subsidising diesel engines as they pollute our streets,” he says. “Everything from construction equipment to transport refrigeration units are allowed to use subsidised red diesel, which acts as a disincentive to innovation, stops operators from focusing on efficiency, and increases emissions.
“That subsidy has nothing to do with the EU. It’s 60 years since the introduction of the Clean Air Act, and it’s absurd that we are living with dangerously high levels of air pollution despite knowing the harm that is being done.”
In fact, there are lots of things that the government can do to improve air quality, with or without pressure from Europe, argues Byles. ”The Clean Air Alliance’s recently published air quality report presses for new clean air zones in dozens of towns and cities to cut the risk of cardiac, respiratory and other diseases caused by polluted air, and Defra plans new zones for five of the most polluted cities. But MPs say more is needed to cut the health and environmental impacts of pollutants, including particulates and nitrogen dioxide,” he says.
The alliance’s report was based on a survey conducted by You Gov on behalf of the organisation, with support from Dearman, the clean cold technology company. The research demonstrated concern about air pollution and support for the introduction of clean air zones.
Of the people surveyed, 76% expressed concern about air pollution in their area. There was also strong support for action to be taken, with 76% backing the introduction of clean air or ultra-low emission zones in their city.”
“This research demonstrates just how big an issue air quality has become,” says Byles. “There is now a growing national consensus about what needs to be done, with widespread support for the introduction of measures to discourage polluting diesel vehicles and encourage uptake of less-polluting alternatives. People are even willing to pay more to be served by companies that use low-emission vehicles.
“The government and local authorities have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a positive impact on the environment and on people’s health. It’s vital that decisive action is taken now to address all the most-polluting vehicles and to reduce pollution where it does the most harm.”
“Dearman, the company that supported the research, is on a mission to make cooling more sustainable. Founder and chief executive Toby Peters says: “For far too long, cooling hasn’t received the research and development investment it has required. Transport refrigeration units remain underdeveloped, fossil-fuelled and disproportionately polluting. The air quality impacts of using business-as-usual technology could be huge.”
“There are 84,000 transport refrigeration units on the streets of the UK alone, says Peters. “About half of those are driven by secondary, small diesel engines, which are largely unregulated, and can emit up to 29 times as much particulate matter and six times as much NOx as a far more powerful Euro VI diesel truck engine.”
“Replacing just one diesel refrigeration unit with a Dearman system, powered by liquid nitrogen, would save the same amount of NOx as taking six HGVs off the road. “lf we could replace all the diesel refrigeration units in the UK with Dearman alternatives, the saving could be substantial. It would remove the same amount of particulate matter as taking more than 5.5 million Euro VI diesel cars off the road,” says Peter.
“While it is too early to say how Brexit will affect any given policy, the government has admitted that action on air pollution is “largely driven by EU legislation”. Greenpeace campaigner Areeba Hamid argues: “Whatever the political reality, we can all accept that everyone in the UK has a right to breathe clean air. Therefore, we simply cannot accept a watering down of this legislation. On the contrary, stronger policies need to be put in place.”