6 August 2014: Brussels is needed to clean up Britain’s air

When Britain was coated in smog back in April, prime minister David Cameron blamed the problem on Saharan dust. He was clearly trying to shift attention away from his government’s failure to deliver clean air. But he was right about one thing: air pollution does not stop at national frontiers. Even the English Channel cannot protect us from foreign pollution. That is why international and continental measures are a necessary part of clean air policy. Surely even Eurosceptics accept this, right? Wrong.

Cameron’s “vote blue, go green” phase seems to be ancient history. In his January 2013 speech promising an EU referendum for 2017, Cameron extolled the merits of the European single market, but went on to argue that environmental standards should be set by national governments. This may have been politically sensible – given the tide of Euroscepticism within his own party and the objection of many Conservatives to green regulations – but it was intellectually incoherent. Setting environmental standards at national level would undermine the single market. Companies could be faced with 28 sets of regulation. Laxer rules in one country could give its firms a competitive advantage. Regulation at national level could also lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ as firms lobbied to restore a level playing field.

EU environmental rules are necessary for the single market. They are also consistent with subsidiarity: pollution and wildlife do not respect national frontiers. London’s ‘great smog’ in 1952 killed at least 10,000 people. The Conservative government responded by banning the burning of coal in domestic fires and requiring new power stations to be built away from cities. This greatly improved urban air quality. But the enormous expansion of car ownership over the next half century made it worse again.

British governments have done little to regulate the problem. Since Britain’s accession to the European Community in 1973, policies to protect or improve air quality have emanated from Brussels, not London. The EU introduced a number of rules on air quality in the 1980s and 1990s. These set limits on the permissible concentrations of pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulates, lead, benzene, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. The EU has rules on how much pollution industrial facilities, including power stations, are allowed to emit. And Brussels regulates pollution from vehicles. Catalytic converters, which reduce carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, have been mandatory on petrol vehicles since 1992 (20 years after they became compulsory in California), and on diesel vehicles since 2008. The sale of leaded petrol has been banned since 2005.

As a result, air quality in Britain has improved. Emissions of sulphur dioxide fell by 89% between 1990 and 2010, nitrogen oxides by 62%. But the air in most British cities is not clean enough to meet EU standards or, more importantly, to protect human health. In 2010, 40 out of Britain’s 43 air quality zones (all in major cities) exceeded nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits. London has the highest levels of NO2 of any European capital city. The growth in air transport has added to the problem – some of the worst air quality in the UK is around Heathrow. Air pollution causes 29,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, according to government statistics. Many more people are killed by vehicle pollution than die in road accidents. Nevertheless, the government has adopted the strategy of arguing for more time to meet EU rules, rather than improving air quality. In September 2011, the government published plans for 23 of the 40 zones to meet the standards by 2015 and a further 16 by 2020. But under these plans, air in London would only meet existing EU standards in 2025.

Meanwhile, in December 2013 the European Commission published proposals for improving air quality by setting stricter standards. These are sensible proposals, based on the advice of the World Health Organization. Continued EU membership would mean continued pressure on UK national and local politicians for cleaner air. London mayor, Boris Johnson, should know this well. His father was head of the pollution division of the commission in the 1970s, a Conservative MEP from 1979 to 1983 and was central to the creation of European environmental policy.

However, staying in the EU should not mean leaving all air quality policy to Brussels. Berlin has the cleanest air of any European capital, in part because the council has used low-emission zones and banned high-emitting vehicles from problem areas. British local councils should follow Berlin’s lead – and overcome the common perception among politicians that the UK has little to learn from overseas. They could also learn from Paris, where the council has successfully promoted electric car sharing. Replacing petrol or diesel cars and vans with electric ones would dramatically improve air quality. It could also reduce climate pollution, if the electricity was generated by renewables, nuclear power or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. Buses and HGVs should run on gas. It produces lower emissions than petrol or diesel and much lower toxic emissions. All buses in Delhi have to run on gas. Some European cities (including Madrid) use gas buses. Local councils should introduce gas buses, though government cuts will make this much more difficult.

It is, of course, possible to promote non-oil transport without being an EU member state. Norway, which is not short of oil, is currently experiencing an electric-vehicle boom. But green issues are almost always high on the political agenda in Norway. In the UK they are not. Without the meddling of Brussels bureaucrats, air pollution would kill even more people every year in Britain than it does now.

This article was published in the August ENDS report

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