Brexit: What will be the impact on air pollution?

Up to 4200 more people could be at risk of premature death from air pollution in 2030 if the UK fails to sign up to new legislation as a result of exiting the European Union, an analysis by Unearthed has found.

The analysis is based on data from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) looking at the impact of new EU legislation. If the UK votes for Brexit on Thursday, it is unlikely the UK would be bound by such legislation.

However it could be that less than 4200 people would be affected as the UK could stand to benefit from the reduced pollution imported from mainland Europe if the National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NEC) comes into force. Harmful particles can also come from further afield such, as the Sahara desert, as was the case with a major pollution event in 2014.

EU ministers are meeting this week to discuss a new law that aims to drastically reduce the health impacts of a number of pollutants, by setting new caps for EU countries on their emissions of fine particulates (PM2.5), nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia and methane.

The final outcome of the NEC directive is currently being discussed in Brussels with a final decision expected by the end of June.

If the UK votes for Brexit on Thursday, it is unlikely the UK would be bound by such legislation, although this could be subject to negotiations.

50,000 deaths

Air pollution could already be responsible for up to 50,000 premature deaths in the UK a year, by exacerbating health conditions including  heart disease and respiratory problems, according to the Environmental Audit Committee. It has also been linked to onset of type 2 diabates and classed as a “group one” carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The situation has been described by cross party MPs as a “public health emergency”.

The UK has flouted EU limits on the pollutant nitrogen dioxide for years – the legal limit for 2016 was broken within 8 days in some parts of London. Last year the Supreme Court ordered the government to create an action plan for change in a case won by the environmental NGO ClientEarth.

They are now suing the government again for plans they deem inadequate.


Although it is unlikely this case would be affected by an exit from the EU, the NGO’s lawyer Alan Andrews told Unearthed it would make it much more difficult to bring such cases in future.

“Stripped of that EU case law which confers the right for EU citizens to go before national courts and demand an action plan where EU air quality limits aren’t being met, air quality law in the UK would be very much weaker and much more unenforceable – non binding objectives that would be very difficult to rely on before the court. From that point of view, us leaving the EU would be a very bad thing.” he said.

Separate from the NEC directive, if the UK also left the European single market, it could also be free to repeal existing legislation on air quality which is widely held responsible for driving measures already taken to cut pollutants, such as congestion charging, bans on heavy good vehicles and the electrification of public transport.

The research by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) reported that this would represent “a significant risk to the health of UK citizens in major urban areas where meeting EU standards is currently a problem”.

Weaker rules

Though they may prove harder to enforce air quality rules in a post-brexit UK would ultimately be set by the UK government, which could – in theory – implement even more stringent rules than currently exist.

Up until now, however, the UK has tended to oppose moves to tighten controls on air quality.

If the UK chose not to prioritise air pollution regulation the country might then fall back on laws that are out of date and “based on the 1950s”, said Andrews.

“The UK would quite quickly likely try and wriggle out of its obligations under the ambient air quality directive. We’ve already seen them lobbying to try and weaken [it] in Brussels to get more flexibilities and extensions introduced to the ambient air quality directive because they were facing litigation. You can bet your bottom euro they would be seeking to do that through domestic law should we leave the EU,” he added.

In London, Boris Johnson was accused of burying a report that showed that schools in deprived areas of London have suffered disproportionately from air pollution.

While in Europe diplomats have blamed the UK for its role – alongside other countries such as France, Italy, Romania and Poland – in lobbying to water down the NEC directive, a recent intervention that could lead to an additional 1,287 UK deaths in 2030, according to an analysis by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Louise Duprez, senior air quality policy officer at the EEB added that Brexit could also pose a threat to air quality in nearby European countries.

“You can’t solve the problem alone. Air pollution doesn’t stop at national borders. We would have to see what is negotiated but if air quality limits were no longer mandatory that would be bad news for people in the UK. It would also be bad news for air quality here in Belgium, Germany or France as these countries import a fair amount of pollution from the UK” she said.

If the UK remained in the single market, existing air quality legislation would continue to apply, but the UK would be unable to influence its development, reports the IEEP.

An exit from the EU could also affect proposals for a third runway at Heathrow, as recommendations for the £17bn expansion by the Airports Commission are predicated on meeting air quality limits.