‘Protecting Air Quality After Brexit’ – Meeting Notes

Notes on ‘Protecting Air Quality after Brexit’ held on 19th June 2018

Geraint Davies MP, Chair of the APPG, commenced proceedings and thanked the panellists and the sponsors of the APPG, Airtopia.

Professor Stephen Holgate, Royal College of Physicians

On the health impacts of air pollution:

  • The negative health impacts of air pollution occur across the life course and can begin at conception.
  • Both long-term exposure and acute air pollution episodes are linked to poor health.
  • Exposure to air pollution in infancy can damage the lungs, and increase the risk of lung infections that may be fatal.
  • Air pollution is linked to reduced lung function in children and adults, lung cancer in adulthood and the development of new onset asthma as well as exacerbating asthma in those who already live with the condition.
  • Air pollution is also an issue of health inequality. The most vulnerable groups – namely people living in deprived areas, children, older people living with chronic long-term conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and cardiovascular diseases – suffer the most harm.
  • There is no level of exposure to air pollution that is safe with multiple organs being affected.
  • Whilst a number of sectors contribute to the UK’s poor air quality, road transport (and especially diesel combustion from older vehicles) is responsible for a high proportion of the burden of disease.

On the impact of Brexit specifically:

  • Air pollution limits set by the EU will technically remain in UK law after Brexit, having been enshrined through the Air Quality Standards Regulation. But the Royal College of Physicians is concerned that the EU will no longer have a role in enforcement and the UK government would therefore be free to repeal the existing limits and introduce weaker air quality rules, and review any deadlines for meeting them.
  • Brexit could also be used as an opportunity to strengthen air quality standards in the UK by adopting revised limits based on World Health Organization guidelines which are driven solely by the available health evidence and set much tighter standards for a number of pollutants.

Amy Mount, Head of Greener UK

  • Greener UK is a group of 13 major environmental organisations with a combined public membership of 7.9 million. They are campaigning to make Brexit an opportunity to enhance and restore the natural environment.
  • 80% of environmental policy stems from EU law.
  • Greener UK have produced a risk tracker which shows which environmental areas are most at risk from being negatively affected by Brexit. Air quality is currently considered to be “red” risk rating because the UK is currently failing to meet its commitments.
  • In general, Greener UK are campaigning for:
    • Continued UK-EU co-operation, e.g. on trans-boundary air pollution.
    • High standards across UK and EU
    • The new green watchdog to have the same enforcement powers as the EU, to take the government to account
    • A new ambitious Environment Act with clean air goals and other objectives
  • On the green watchdog specifically, Greener UK are urging government to ensure that the new body:
    • Has enforcement powers to initiate and intervene in legal proceedings
    • Includes a citizen’s complaints mechanism
    • Includes climate change into its remit
    • Applies to public authorities as well as central government
    • Is guaranteed independence from government interference

 

Katherine Neild, Clean Air Lawyer, ClientEarth

Both the legislative and governance drivers for action to tackle air pollution in this country have come from the EU – in the form of:

  1. The Ambient Air Quality Directive – this sets limit values and mandates action where these limits are breached. It is now 8 years since the UK was meant to comply with nitrogen dioxide limits, yet the government is still failing to meet its obligations; and
  2. The European Commission and the CJEU – the UK has recently been referred to the CJEU by the European Commission over its failure to meet its obligations under the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

When these fall away following exit from the EU, there is real risk that ambition on air quality will wane.

However, there is now a real opportunity for the UK not just to fill the gaps left following Brexit, but to improve on the existing structures.  To do so, we need a new Clean Air Act that is fit for the 21 Century, backed up by an environmental watchdog with teeth.

ClientEarth’s suggestions for a new Clean Air Act:

  1. Adopt more ambitious air quality standards based on the latest scientific evidence
  • Merely carrying over existing limit values is not enough.
  • Limit values set out in the Ambient Air Quality Directive do not reflect the guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO), particularly for particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5).
  • To ensure that people’s health is protected in line with the latest scientific evidence, a new Clean Air Act should adopt binding limit values that correspond to the latest WHO standards and provide a mechanism whereby those limit values can be revised down or new pollutants added to the list where new evidence comes to light.
  • Even if the existing implementing Regulations are carried over post-Brexit, there is concern that retained law will not be properly secured against future modification by statutory instrument. Without new primary legislation, existing standards could easily be relaxed.
  1. Enshrine the right to breathe clean air into domestic law and guarantee access to the courts to enforce that right
  • The Act should enshrine peoples’ right to clean air, in line with limit values.
  • It should provide a quick and affordable mechanism for the public and NGOs to enforce this right, allowing the substantive review of air quality plans and providing effective judicial remedies.
  • ClientEarth’s legal action has been instrumental in holding the government to account over their inadequate air quality plans. Whilst giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee earlier this year, Michael Gove himself recognised that ClientEarth’s legal action demonstrated that the courts are a “very effective tool for making sure Government is kept to the mark”. Maintaining this tool is vital.
  1. Consolidate and clarify existing legislation
  • Air quality legislation has evolved in a relatively piecemeal manner. Powers and duties are located in different Acts and Regulations and it is often difficult to identify the mechanisms by which central government, devolved administrations, metro mayors, local authorities can be held to account and how citizens can ensure the air they breathe is clean.  We need a new single piece of primary legislation that consolidates and clarifies.
  • Defra’s draft Clean Air Strategy contains a commitment to bring forward “long-standing frameworks for local and national action on air pollution into the 21st century with stronger powers and clearer accountability”. This is absolutely necessary, but the devil will be in the detail.
  • The UK Government’s latest approach to address illegal levels of roadside NO2 across the country has been to pass down responsibility to individual English local authorities. In many cases, these local authorities are concerned that they do not have the necessary powers or resources to implement the measures required to tackle the issue.
  • Central government has a duty to take action to address what it has recognised as the “biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK”. The government must not simply pass responsibility to local authorities that are already under strain and do not have the resources, expertise or policy levers to address this problem alone.
  • Where responsibility is imposed on local authorities to take action, they will need to be given the funding, support and powers to do so effectively.

Prof. Roland Leigh, Technical Director, EarthSense

EarthSense was born from 15 years of air quality research at the University of Leicester, and was created to bring some cutting-edge techniques into the operational environment with the aim of:

  1. contributing to resolving the current air quality crisis
  2. promoting sustainable development and clean technologies
  3. encouraging societal benefit and economic growth.
  • Any relaxation of air quality legislation, additional leniency shown for non-compliance, or even perception thereof, would be highly damaging to a wide range of industries across the UK. If the UK trails other countries in this area, our industry will look to other countries for existing solutions, and our international competitiveness will diminish.
  • Our export power reduces further as our perceived environmental credentials weaken, and we struggle to deliver services across the world from a country which is perceived as weak in terms of air quality. The environmental monitoring sector would be heavily affected. In general, strict regulations drive innovation across the environmental sector and others such as automotive and engineer.
  • The government encourage, stimulate and initiate innovation through clean and demanding legislation. However, softer approaches must also be utilised, including the encouragement of industrial best practice in the area through accreditation schemes and intelligent public procurement.

On monitoring

  • The current EU metrics for air quality are based on relatively old techniques and technologies. A single number for a few pollutants are used to report on entire urban areas with hundreds of thousands of people.
  • But consistent methodologies for measurement and modelling allow trends over time to be reliably tracked without concerns over the impact of any changes in measurement technique.
  • We should therefore look to continue this baseline requirement for monitoring and build on it with innovative solutions which provide better decision-making information, and a more robust appreciation of the actual human health impact of any pollution.

On metrics

  • The headline figures demonstrating the impact of air pollution – deaths per annum and economic impact, should be reported annually and tracked to understand the effectiveness of our interventions. The methodology could be updated with our best understanding of where the pollution is and what the indoor situation is?
  • Monitoring these metrics could be a role of the new environmental watchdog body. Failure to meet targets could result in ring-fenced fines being allocated towards air quality initiatives.

Earlier this year, EarthSense also launched a pollution post code checker in collaboration with the BBC. Approximately 2 million people used this facility in the first 48 hours. This shows the very significant public interest in this issue.

EarthSense advocate that the UK should build on EU legislation beyond Brexit to genuinely protect human health, stimulate growth and healthy competitiveness. The creation of sustainable cities of the future is critical for the global community, and the UK should be at the cutting edge.

Discussion followed. Some key points raised were:

  • There was a discussion around the need for better public engagement as to the issue of air pollution. It was suggested that an appropriate way of doing this would be through the medical profession, and particularly general practitioners.
  • Delegates noted that while electric vehicles were certainly a step in the right direction in terms of reducing harmful emissions, it was also critical to reduce the number of private vehicles on the road, and promote active travel (walking & cycling), public transport, and shared ownership (e.g. car clubs)
  • A delegate noted the importance of recognising indoor air quality as a separate and equally as significant issue as transport emissions, considering people spend the majority of their time indoors.