Future of UK’s environmental legislation up in the air in Brexit aftermath

Photo credit: David Holt London. Flickr via Compfight.

A physician and member of the Welsh Assembly warned that Brexit could be detrimental to the country’s effort to clean up its pervasive air pollution problem.

“We’ve got a challenge now here in Wales because the whole country just voted to leave the EU,” Dr Dai Lloyd said.

Lloyd recently won election to the Welsh Assembly for the second time and is a part-time GP in Swansea. He said the evidence linking particulate matter to human health issues has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt and that governments at all levels need to start working on solutions.

The Welsh Assembly recently passed an air quality management policy guidance for local authorities to address air pollution in their respective jurisdictions.

Lloyd is concerned that Brexit could mean air quality standards adopted from the EU would be lowered.

“Before we were in the EU, we didn’t have decent environmental legislation,” he said. “Unless we’re very careful, leaving Europe will result in a devolution in the strength of that environmental legislation.”

Port Talbot is among the communities worst affected by air pollution in the country. It is home to the Tata steelworks, which produce almost half of the UK’s total steel output and is a major emitter of particulate matter and nitrous oxides.

Anthony Taylor, a Neath Port Talbot councillor, said he is happy with current air quality legislation and believes Wales is moving in the right direction, but is also worried about the impact Brexit will have on future legislation.

“Most of our emissions legislation stems from the EU,” he said. “These laws can be weakened, adopted or strengthened when they come back across the Channel.”

Taylor, a Labour councillor, is concerned that the Tory government will not do enough to protect the environment.

“In general, Conservative governments tend to favour fewer regulations, of all kinds on businesses,” he said.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has already been taken to court three times this year over its proposed clean air plan, which critics say does not comply with EU legislation.

Separate from the clean air plan, a Clean Air Bill was reintroduced to Parliament and is currently in the committee stage of the House of Commons. The Swansea West MP Geraint Davies introduced the bill, which is designed to incentivise consumers to purchase low emission cars, subsidise renewable energy sources and give local authorities more responsibilities for measuring and publicising air pollution statistics.

“The clean air bill is a route map to reach World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards by tackling emissions in our cities, ports and airports,” he wrote in the Guardian. “It provides the signals and incentives for consumers and producers to change their behaviour to do so.”

The bill does not specifically mention reducing particulate matter emissions; instead it focuses on diesel. Davies declined to be interviewed for this story.

Some air quality experts believe that measures such as this one, as well as current UK environmental legislation will not be greatly affected by the country’s decision to exit the EU.

Paul Monks, an atmospheric chemistry researcher at the University of Leicester, said Brexit will not necessarily make air quality regulations any worse. He was part of the air quality expert group that measured particulate matter emissions in Port Talbot in 2011.

“EU guidelines for air pollution have already been transcribed into UK law,” he said. “In reality, Brexit will not change any of these standards themselves, only how they are enforced.”

Currently, any infractions of the particulate matter emission limits are brought to the European Commission and tried in the European Court of Justice. Post-Brexit, a process will need to be determined for trying and appealing any infractions.

Providing independent judicial review over regulating emissions will be the biggest environmental issue after Brexit, according to Lord John Deben — the former Secretary of state for environment and chairman of the Committee on Climate Change.

“Any new judicial process will require certain qualities,” said Deben. “Both the Environmental Agency and Natural England will need to have a greater degree of independence in order conduct thorough and efficient investigations.”

Monks said the logical path would be for these infractions to go through the court system all the way up to the Supreme Court.

He also believes that the UK’s divorce from the EU could simplify a lot of existing air quality legislation, which he thinks would be beneficial.

“An interesting possibility is if we can achieve the same level of air quality protection in a more efficient way,” Monks said. “EU air quality directives, which are derived from WHO recommendations, are not the most straightforward. Brexit could lead to more progressive environmental legislation.”