Air pollution: who will stand up for our health and environment after Brexit?

We must stand up for our health and environment post-Brexit

Last week, the UK government published plans to tackle air pollution and bring it within legal limits.

MPs called it a public health emergency last April. A few months later, Theresa May assured the Commons that nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it.”

Bold talk. But the plan itself is a shambles.

ClientEarth, an environmental law group, has taken the government to court three times since 2010 over their failure to adequately tackle air pollution, which is required by EU law. The last version of the plan was deemed illegal- and ClientEarth have said that this latest iteration is even worse.

The two ways to most effectively curb air pollution are to cut traffic from designated clean air zones, or to set up a scrappage scheme to get the worst vehicles off the road while compensating those drivers.

Yet despite the government’s own technical report saying that we need 27 new clean air zones, the plan actually proposes no more than the 6 that were outlined in the previous plan. It may be true that the government doesn’t want to anger driving voters so close to an election, but we’ll all pay the substantial price for failing to act now.


Uneven impacts

The numbers are staggering. A Royal College of Physicians report found that air pollution is linked to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK per year, including 10,000 in London alone. It has been linked to cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and most recently, dementia.

But air pollution deals an uneven hand, and certain parts of society are more at risk than others. The government themselves have said that among the evidence they examined, lower income groups face higher exposure to NO2. Lower income groups also have higher risk factors that make it more likely their health will be detrimentally affected by air pollution.

Add this to a health service already under increasing pressure? It’s an alarming picture.

Brexit and the environment

The court case mounted by Client Earth raises vital questions about power, accountability and responsibility over the environment.

The UK has been breaching EU legislation on air pollution for seven years, with London overshooting its entire annual air pollution limit for 2017 in just the first five days of January, and the EU recently threatened to take the matter to the European Court of Justice. But with action to manage and improve air quality largely driven by EU legislation, it is unclear what will happen after Brexit.

This question applies not only to rules around air pollution, but to much of the UK’s environmental regulation law, which comes from the EU. Who will make sure the government keeps its promises, or even make commitments in the first place?

Fears are growing that the government might replace current legislation with new laws giving ministers far greater powers to change pollution limits. As we reported last month, leaked documents imply that trade and growth’ will become the overriding priority for civil servants, at the expense of issues like climate change.

Over the last seven years, the government has shown us that they would quite happily let the UK’s residents stew in a toxic soup. We can’t let them write rules that they can bend or ignore at will.

Children from one of Britain’s most polluted neighbourhoods have written to the leaders of the main political parties urging them to publish a clean air act within 100 days of the election, and in doing so they are sending a clear message. We need an environment that keeps us healthy and safe, and a government that sets rules that protect us from harm through environmental regulation that upholds high standards in the wake of Brexit.

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