Air quality features in the news on an almost daily basis. There is increasing understanding about how vulnerable groups are at a disproportionately high risk from poor air quality. While there is debate about the extent to which poor air quality is detrimental to health and mortality rates, even the most cautious estimates have been a serious cause for concern. The UK Government has called air pollution the “top environmental risk to human health in the UK”.

A number of plans, legislation and policies on air quality are expected over the coming months. Here’s a summary of some of the key things to look out for.

EU infraction proceedings on NO2 limits: will the UK receive a fine?

The European Commission began infraction proceedings against the UK in February 2014 for its admitted failure to meet EU Air Quality Directive ambient air targets for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in certain air quality zones and for failing to take “appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible.” The EU Commission, in May 2018, referred the UK (along with France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania) to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).

The CJEU has not yet heard the case; it can take more than two years for a hearing to happen. The Court has the power to fine the UK for breaching this legislation. Commentators question whether any fine could now be imposed before the date of the UK’s EU Exit. It is also unclear, if a fine was imposed, whether the Government would pass the fine on to the local authority areas concerned.

New problem areas identified: work in progress

In July 2017 the Government published UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations: Detailed plan. This was the latest in a successive series of plans challenged by judicial review by environmental campaigners.

These challenges related to whether the plans provided for sufficient action in the shortest possible time. As ordered by the Court, the Government published a Supplement to this Plan on 5 October 2018.

In the Supplement, new, more locally derived data for modelling roadside NO2 was used. Although some roads were found to be no longer in breach of NO2 limits, it identified eight new local authority areas as having persistent, long term exceedances:

  • Bolsover
  • Bradford
  • Portsmouth
  • Broxbourne
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme
  • Stoke-on-Trent
  • Leicester
  • Liverpool

These areas must now submit plans to the Government by 31 October 2019 showing how they will address these exceedances in the shortest possible time.

This is in addition to ongoing work stemming from earlier Plans, which includes:

  • establishing Clean Air Zones (access restrictions to encourage cleaner vehicles), in Birmingham, Leeds, Derby and Southampton; and
  • Government Directions to a number of local authorities requiring specified actions, (such as behavioural change and traffic management measures and bus retrofits), to improve roadside air quality; and
  • an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) planned in central London from 8 April 2019 where certain vehicles must meet exhaust standards or pay a charge.

Will the UK continue to comply with the emissions “ceilings”?

The EU National Emission Ceilings Directive 2016 sets national “ceilings” for specific air pollutants to be met by 2020 and 2030, with the aim of reducing transboundary pollution. The UK is currently compliant with ceilings for total emissions for all pollutants, but the draft Clean Air Strategy states that “without the new policies and commitments set out in this strategy, we would be likely to breach our emissions ceilings for PM2.5 [particulate matter] and NH3 [ammonia] in 2020 and all five of our emissions ceilings in 2030.”

The Directive requires an update to plans every four years. The Government’s stated intention is to publish a UK Air Pollution Control Programme in April 2019 in conjunction with the devolved administrations; we do not yet know if this will continue following Brexit.

Monitoring and enforcing air quality after Brexit

The Government has been clear that it has no plans to change limit values and targets for air quality. Following Brexit however, it is likely that the role EU institutions play in monitoring and enforcing air quality in the UK will end.  A Government consultation on environmental principles and governance has proposed the creation of a new statutory independent environmental watchdog to hold government to account. This will be achieved through an Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, which must be published in draft by 26 December 2018. It is not yet known what powers the new watchdog will have to enforce obligations. Environmental groups are monitoring these proposals carefully.

A continued high profile

The extent of interest in air quality seems likely to keep the issue high on the political agenda. For example, campaigners UNICEF UK, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth each have separate high profile air quality campaigns. Academic research and analysis, such as that recently published and planned from the Government advisory body the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants,  aims to further the scientific understanding of how air pollution impacts health. Environmental groups such as ClientEarth have proved that they scrutinise carefully air quality policies and are willing to take the Government to court; while a global outlook is maintained by bodies such as UN Environment and the World Health Organization. Legislation will follow too.

What else is the Government doing about it?

The Government’s May 2018 draft Clean Air Strategy tackles a wider range of air pollutants. It proposes new legislation, including: updating provisions on smoke control areas, with greater enforcement powers for local authorities; and setting a new simplified statutory framework for clean air zones. It also set out ambitions for more stringent targets for fine particulates (PM2.5) that those set by the EU.

A new Environment Bill including provisions on air quality is expected in the next Parliamentary session.

Louise Smith is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in the environment. 

Further reading

Brexit and air quality, House of Commons Library

Brexit and the environment, House of Commons Library

Air Pollution: Meeting Nitrogen Dioxide Targets, House of Commons Library

Image copyright Paul Anderson and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.