Without the EU Londoners would breathe even dirtier air

Sadiq Khan must make air pollution a priority, but to make a difference he needs support from Westminster and Europe

Credit: David Holt

With the World Health Organisation highlighting London as one of worst areas in the UK for particulate matter, bringing our dirty air within European legal limits must be a top priority for the new mayor of London in his first term.

While there has been significant improvement, London’s pollution is still so bad that it only took the first seven days of this year for London to breach its annual air pollution limits. Research shows it’s responsible for 9,500 premature deaths from long term exposure from mainly two key vehicle pollutants. Unsurprisingly it’s the top public health concern for Londoners.

Sadiq Khan, will come under even more pressure to tackle this public health disaster. Despite his manifesto promises, the Mayor’s decision to unblock the expansion of City Airport suggests he isn’t giving pollution his highest priority.

The mayor’s success will depend in part on national government and EU action. Unfortunately the government’s record has been awful for many years.

You only have to look at the its record in lobbying for weaker air quality standards to see that the UK would become the ‘dirty man of Europe‘ again if we left the European Union. Brexit could set back efforts to tackle London’s air pollution by years.

After the UK joined the EU in 1973 it failed to control pollution from cars and power stations. It was only EU legal pressure and threat of unlimited fines that forced the then government to clean up its act on key environmental problems. But it still breaches laws on air pollution.

To this day, the government has continued to resist and to weaken EU standards, rather than improving air quality. In the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which also implicated other car manufacturers, our government feigned outrage but swiftly fought against EU efforts to act.

The UK government failed to back the recent EU attempt for tighter Real Driving Emission (RDE) tests and vetoed loopholes in new air pollution limits on new diesel cars.

In 2014, the Government was ordered to urgently clean up air pollution following a ruling in the European Court of Justice. Client Earth was able to take the case, regarding the EU Air Quality Directive, through the UK’s courts. The highest courts in the UK and Europe rejected the Government’s longstanding policy of extending the deadlines.

The Government was then forced to revise its national air pollution plan to achieve compliance with the nitrogen dioxide limits “as soon as possible”. However the revised plan published in December 2015 made no fundamental changes or proposed the type of actions that would bring London into compliance with annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide before 2025.

There was no sign of policies called for by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly’s Environment Committee. No reform of Vehicle Excise Duty to reflect pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide. No  national diesel scrappage scheme to get rid of the dirtiest cars. Both were rejected, even though the previous Mayor said could have made 2020 compliance in London possible .

Fortunately, ClientEarth is again taking the UK government back to court for failing to comply adequately with the UK’s Supreme Court bring pollution levels within EU limits.

What does this story tell us?

I think it shows that we absolutely need these strong European standards, and we need a reformed EU to enforce them more strongly.

The EU’s Air Quality Directive, now implemented in UK law, gave the mayor of London a legal duty to produce an air quality strategy and to keep it under review for the Greater London Area.

In some areas it has worked. Five of the seven local pollutants against which standards and objectives for meeting EU limit values have been met, most notably sulphur dioxide and lead, which historically had been a problem in London and are now below harmful levels.

We have also been able to work with our continental neighbours to reduce their pollution. That’s important because over a third of our air pollution drifts across the channel and north sea from the continent.

If we left the EU, our government’s track record over decades shows that air pollution would rapidly drop off the agenda. We would lose our ability to influence our neighbours, improve vehicle standards, and enforce against the dirty tricks of companies like VW.

The government would move to weaken UK law and give itself a free pass to leave millions of Londoners breathing toxic air. We must stay in Europe and clean up our air as an urgent priority.

Caroline Russell AM is a member of the Green Party Group in the London Assembly

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