London breached its annual total nitrogen dioxide target for the year 2017 in the first five days of January. The highest level of warning was issued and advice suggested staying indoors, which is pretty much unprecedented since The Great Smog of 1952. This has been coming for a while though; we are seriously behind the eight ball on air quality. The UK was issued an infringement notice by the European Commission for Nitrogen Dioxide exceedances in February 2014, expected to cost £300m in fines when the decision is made (these things take ponderous lengths of time to settle).
But we are by no means alone. Last week the European Commission adopted the Environmental Implementation Review which it described as "a new way to help Member States apply EU rules benefits citizens, administrations and economy". The reason the Commission feels the need for such a review is the serious compliance gaps that persist across the union:
"On air quality, in 23 out of 28 Member States, standards are still exceeded – in total in over more than 130 cities across Europe".
Change really is in the air though. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has made a public commitment to tackle air quality that departs from the laissez-faire of previous administrations in the capital. Perhaps this stems from his own experiences as an adult-onset asthma sufferer but real money and effort is behind cleaning transport as well as greening it. A recent study by the University of Surrey investigated whether income inequality, which partly determines transport choices for commuters, is leading to a variance in potential respiratory health outcomes. The theory goes that wealthier car drivers pollute the most but enjoy the cleanest journey to work because of lower infiltration of pollutants. Buses meanwhile, with manually openable windows, receive the highest levels of air pollution and are most likely to serve those of lowest income. In fact, the study revealed that heavy traffic congestion in general was a bigger factor in exposure to pollutants than where you might travel from and how you might get there because almost everyone will walk for some part of their commute. Mayor Khan has prioritised clean buses and clean bus routes in a package of measures to improve London air.
Khan took the fight to the Government as well, joining a successful legal action by an NGO, Client Earth. The High Court ruled in their favour (for the second time in a row) late last year that measures to cut nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emissions were not being done in the shortest possible time. The court accepted their argument that the Government ignored measures that could have improved air quality sooner, such as congestion charging for diesel cars (Clean Air Zones) and Vehicle Excise Duty changes in favour of low emission vehicles.
The proposed measures to achieve the required standard were blocked by HM Treasury and the dynamics of this are quite revealing. The Government wanted to avoid upsetting motorists. They also had a compliance-driven timetable for meeting the emissions standard by 2020; the earliest date the EU might levy fines. Timidity with decision-making may have had something to do with the Brexit vote. Interestingly, if the UK no longer had the EU targets as a backstop for policy decisions, they might actually require smarter, more evidence-based, target setting in future.
A repeal bill removing the European Communities Act 1972 still leaves substantial UK air quality legislation intact governing road transport (including emissions standards for new vehicles), fire, nuisances and industrial air pollution. The strategies set up to meet EU standards might well remain in place after Brexit because it might be too costly and counterproductive not to continue the programmes. What could happen, though, would be that the UK produces its own strategy after 2020, separate to Europe. This isn’t so bad if we take note of the way that the science moves on and often requires pollutants to be re-evaluated and standards to be reshaped. There is a wider international community shaping the agenda.
Directive 2016/2284 published on 14 December 2016 revised the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) setting revised national emissions targets for NOx, SOx VOCs, ammonia and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The really interesting thing about the new Directive is that it implements an international agreement called the Gothenburg Protocol to the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which include central and eastern European countries, who are not EU members, as well as the USA and Canada.
A concern expressed by Greenpeace lawyer, Alan Andrews, is that non-binding objectives – such as those that could be achieved in international conferences – are more difficult to rely on before the court than EU case law. This may be true, and very important to a litigant such as an environmental NGO. But it could also be the case that UK strength in environmental and climate science could fill the breach by replacing precedents with evidence. That is potentially a better basis for decision making. If our scientists, practitioners and policy makers are free to engage the wider international treaty-making world, rather than focusing their talents in the confines of the European Union, with its focus on free movement and trade within but protectionism without, there could be a better result. Because air pollution doesn’t respect international borders. As an example, the higher levels of air pollution in the South-east of England are in part due to the presence of our largest city but are also a product regional proximity to Europe. That’s some irony. Clouds do not appear to respect the results of referendums; Brexit could not, it seems, make armadas of smog turn back for Spain.
The EU is committed to a long-term objective that air quality does not give rise to negative impacts on and risk to human health. But so too are the World Health Organisation and The United Nations Environmental Programme. The global toll from modifiable environmental factors is now calculated at 12.6m deaths per annum; in other words, WHO is asserting that a quarter of all deaths every year have an environmental component. A joint declaration by WHO and UNEP at the COP22 meeting in Marrakech on 15 November last year made the startling statement that there is currently “no global high-level alliance which addresses the comprehensive set of linkages between health, environment and climate change”. Time to build one, perhaps. It’s certainly needed. The Guardian newspaper is focusing on air quality all this week. The first despatch was from Onitsha in Nigeria, which has officially the highest levels of PM10 particulates in the air of any city on the planet. How could you hope to clean up a place like that if you can’t even get 20% compliance with EU law in your own member states?
Far from finding ourselves in a world fractured by populism, we may actually be entering a paradigm of supranational agreements for which the EU might only represent merely an important bloc. The drumbeat of isolationist retreat following Brexit and Trump is unlikely to drown out the cries of anguish from the developing world over a range of issues of which climate change and health rank particularly high. The example being set by bodies such as IPCC is that scientific consensus is a powerful thing. International agreements made under its auspices are very hard to reverse. If Britain wants to begin life after Brexit on the front foot, then we should take a leading role in forming an international organisation to tackle global air quality. It would be a great way to signal that we are actually reaching out beyond the EU, rather than manning the barricades. Because the latter won’t keep the smog out.