Air quality has long been a high profile issue. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought it back to the fore. In particular, concerns have arisen about whether there is a link between poor air quality and Covid-19 outcomes.

Researchers are also beginning to examine the effect of lockdown measures on air quality.

This Insight will examine the how the issue of air quality is tied up with Brexit negotiations and the coronavirus pandemic.

The backdrop of Brexit

The UK and EU are engaged in ongoing negotiations on trade and the future relationship. Both sides have agreed to a level playing field on environmental matters. But there are notable differences between the parties as to what this means. This in turn may affect future standards set on air quality.

Trends in air quality

Over the last 5 years annual emissions of key pollutants sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) have fallen. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nonmethane volatile organic compounds (VOC) have levelled off. Ammonia (NH3) levels have increased.

A chart to show five key pollutants in the UK from 1990 to 2018
Source and Image Description

The Clean Air Strategy

In January 2019 the Government published a Clean Air Strategy for England. It called air pollution the top environmental risk to human health in the UK.

The Strategy acknowledged the damaging effects of roadside and industrial pollution. It also set out the case for tackling other sources of air pollution, including those from intensive agricultural food production, heating homes and cleaning with certain solvents.

The Environment Bill

Some elements of the Clean Air Strategy require legislation. Provisions in the Environment Bill 2019-20 will introduce a duty to set a target for PM2.5, a further long-term air quality target, and will amend the local authority air quality framework and powers.

The Bill will also establish a new environmental governance body. This is intended to take over the role of European Institutions at the end of the Brexit transition period. This new body will have a role in monitoring and enforcing air quality policy across England.

The Covid-19 pandemic

It is accepted that poor air quality makes people more susceptible to respiratory infections and other illnesses. The NHS has warned that those people with certain pre-existing conditions, such as respiratory illnesses, may have an increased vulnerability to Covid-19.

The Government has said in a PQ that

…there is no clear evidence to suggest that nitrogen dioxide and/or nitric oxide have a direct link to the infection rate or death rate of COVID-19.

Public Health England and other Government departments are undertaking reviews, which includes “assessing whether there is any evidence of an association between exposure to gaseous pollutants or particulates and COVID-19 mortality in the United Kingdom.”

Initial findings on Covid-19 and lockdown

Changes to working patterns and lifestyles during the lockdown are likely to have impact on air quality levels and locations of exposure. Many press articles have reported improvements in traffic related nitrogen dioxide levels.

The Air Quality Expert Group (an Expert Committee to Government that provides independent scientific advice), published initial findings in July 2020.These findings, based on non-peer reviewed observational data, showed evidence there was a drop in the emissions and concentrations of some pollutants.

The measured drop in emissions varied by pollutant. Nitrogen dioxide levels showed a consistent drop while PM2.5 exhibited a more variable pattern.

A contribution to the report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants suggested the possibility that past exposure to air pollution was likely to impact on Covid-19. But it noted the need for further study of this.

There have been calls for a “green recovery” from Coronavirus, which includes asks on improving local variations in air quality.

Air quality governance and targets in the Environment Bill

The progress of the Environment Bill through Parliament has been delayed due to the pandemic. Environmental organisations are concerned that in turn this will delay the establishment of the new governance body.

The Bill will also require the Government to set an (unspecified) target for PM2.5. In 2019 a feasibility study examined whether the UK could adopt the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended annual limit for PM2.5 of 10μg/m3 (micrograms). The Government concluded that, “it would be technically feasible to meet the WHO guideline level for PM2.5 across the UK in the future” but went on to say that:

Substantive further analysis is needed to understand what would be an appropriate timescale and means, and we will work with a broad range of experts, factoring in economic, social and technological feasibility to do this.

A level playing field?

In the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, both parties agreed to maintain a level playing field on environmental matters (including air quality). Trade and future relationships negotiation rounds, however, have revealed different approaches from each party.

This may have a bearing on whether the UK follows future EU changes to air quality standards. The EU’s Green Deal contains proposals to review air quality standards in line with WHO guidelines.

A difference of opinion

The EU favours a prescriptive approach with strong enforcement mechanisms. It also wants a “ratchet clause.” This model would mean that if both parties increase the level of protection, they cannot reduce it again.

The UK Government has repeatedly committed to uphold standards. But, it does not want commitment to specific standards included. The UK Government argues that its approach is similar to that adopted by the EU in trade agreements the EU has with other countries.

Further reading

Commons Library analysis of the Environment Bill 2019-20, House of Commons Library.

The UK-EU future relationship negotiations: Level playing field, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Louise Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in the environment.

Photo by Eilis Garvey on Unsplash