19 April 2016: EU membership delivers cleaner air

The air in London is cleaner than it was in the 1950s, the era of infamous smogs. But it is still not clean enough. Every year over nine thousand Londoners are killed by air pollution, primarily from road transport (see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/nearly-9500-people-die-early-in-a-single-year-in-london-as-a-result-of-air-pollution-study-finds-10390729.html) . British politicians of all parties have failed to tackle this problem adequately, for fear of upsetting motorists and so losing votes. Most of the measures taken since 1973 to reduce air pollution in the UK have been due to European policies and regulations.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate to be the next mayor of London, wants to leave the EU. At a Green Alliance hustings event (see http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/greener_london_hustings.php) he said that, while there are pros and cons, on balance EU membership is bad for the environment. He is wrong.

Today, the UK parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee publishes a report on EU and UK Environmental Policy. This begins with a very clear statement:

The UK’s membership of the EU has been a crucial factor in the shaping of its environmental policy since it joined the Union in the 1970s. The overwhelming view of our witnesses was that EU membership has been positive for the UK environment. None of the witnesses to our inquiry, even those who made criticisms, made an environmental case for leaving the European Union.”

(See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmenvaud/537/53703.htm)

This was also my conclusion in my 2014 Centre for European Reform policy brief The green benefits of Britain’s EU membership:

“EU membership has not been entirely positive for the UK environment. The common agricultural policy (CAP) and common fisheries policy (CFP) are environmentally destructive as well as economically wasteful. Nevertheless, from a green perspective, UK membership has delivered substantial benefits.”


One of these benefits is cleaner air. The EU has adopted a number of rules on air quality:

  • The 1996 Air Quality Framework Directive’ set out basic principles of how air quality should be assessed and managed by national governments. Four ‘daughter’ directives set limits for pollutants which damage human health. In 2008 these rules were combined into a new Air Quality Directive’, which also set new limits for fine particles.
  • The 1988 Large Combustion Plants Directive regulated emission of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from power stations and factories. This directive was primarily a response to acid rain, which had led to the large-scale death of trees. But sulphur and nitrogen dioxide also damage human health. In 2010 this directive was incorporated, with some other anti-pollution rules, into the Industrial Emissions Directive.
  • The 2001 National Emissions Ceiling Directive set limits for total emissions in each member state of four pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia.
  • The EU has also regulated to reduce pollution from vehicles, again to protect human health. Catalytic converters, which reduce carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, have been mandatory on petrol vehicles since 1992, and anti-pollution technology on diesel vehicles since 2008.

In December 2013 the Commission launched the Clean Air Package. This included a proposed strengthening of the National Emissions Ceiling Directive, to deliver cleaner air which would meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for health protection. (See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2014/536285/IPOL_STU(2014)536285_EN.pdf). This proposal is currently being considered by the European institutions.

Brexiteers sometimes argue that European action is not needed on air quality (or indeed on anything else) because the British parliament could do whatever necessary by itself. They point to the fact that London smogs were ended by the UK’s 1956 Clean Air Act, passed by a Conservative UK government, which banned the burning of coal in cities. Zac Goldsmith argues that, outside the EU, the UK could be like Norway, controlling pollution but not having to implement the CAP and CFP. This is theoretically possible – though ignores the fact that Norway has to implement many EU rules, including anti-pollution rules, without a vote on their adoption (see https://www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2012/buchan_swiss_norway_11oct12-6427.pdf). So the Norway option would not answer the Brexiteers’ demand for full UK sovereignty.

But the Goldsmith vision could only happen if Britons became like Norwegians, and UK politicians followed their Nordic counterparts. This does not seem very likely. In 2000 the Norwegian prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, stood down from the premiership because his coalition partners insisted on allowing gas power stations. As I wrote in my CER paper:

“No British prime minister would consider resigning the premiership over something regarded as second order by British politicians and the media.”

(See http://www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2014/green_benefits_policy_brief_final-8767.pdf)

The UK argued successfully for the Commission’s proposals on the National Emissions Ceiling Directive to be weakened, in December 2015. It had earlier opposed a strong Fuel Quality Directive. So the chances of far-sighted British politicians clamping down on air pollution do not look great any time soon.

Even if we did get such enlightened politicians, they couldn’t deliver clean air just by acting nationally. As I wrote in 2014:

“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.”

(See http://climateanswers.info/2014/08/6-august-2014-brussels-is-needed-to-clean-up-britains-air/)

The EU is not perfect, and needs reform. But it has delivered cleaner air.

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