The UK Government as described poor air quality as “the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK” as it launched a briefing note giving an overview of all laws, governance and enforcement arrangements now that the country is no longer a member of the EU.
Following Brexit, a number of internationally agreed laws remain in place but others have been, or will be, replaced by country-specific legislation.
A December 2022 report on air pollution from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) highlighted the fact that air pollution is, “associated with impacts on lung development in children, heart disease, stroke, cancer, exacerbation of asthma and increased mortality, among other health effects.” In terms of numbers of deaths, the report stated that “the mortality burden of long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution in England in 2019 was estimated to be equivalent to 26,000 to 38,000 deaths a year”.
As well as human health, air pollution also has implications for the natural environment and for the economy. Due to the cross border nature of air pollution, action to manage and improve air quality in the UK has been driven by both international agreements and EU legislation, as well as national and devolved legislation.
Now a research briefing, Air quality: policies, proposals and concerns setting out the latest situation regarding laws, guidance and concerns driving policy-making post-Brexit, has been published by the a team at the House of Commons Library.
Syntegra MD Alan King said: “There is a raft of legislation relating to this key environmental topic which is one which rightly concerns very many people as the effects of poor air quality have such a significant impact on communities.
“It is helpful to have this document detailing all the policies and background material in one place as a single reference point.
“We will continue to lobby for stricter rules around air quality and work with all interested parties to promote clean air and mitigate the harmful effects of pollutants wherever possible.”
At the international level, the Gothenburg Protocol and amendments to it set emissions ceiling levels for various pollutants with the aim of controlling long-range transboundary pollution. Its main requirements have been implemented in the UK by the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018.
There is also legislation relating to ambient air quality at EU level through Directive 2008/50/EC (PDF) (the “Air Quality Directive”). Instead of setting a ceiling for pollutants, it sets “limit values” (parameters that must not be exceeded) for concentrations of different pollutants – values which remain part of UK law.
The UK Government has set two further targets for fine particulate matter (PM2.5 ) in England through The Environmental Targets (Fine Particulate Matter) (England) Regulations 2023 (SI 2023/96). The targets are:
An annual mean concentration target – a target of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg m3) to be met across England by 2040.
A population exposure reduction target – a 35% reduction in population exposure by 2040 (compared to a base year of 2018).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) published updated Global Air Quality Guidelines in September 2021 covering Particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. They provide guidance on thresholds and limits for key air pollutants that pose health risks. They are guidelines only and are not binding on any country unless that country chooses to adopt them into its own legislation.
In the UK, air quality limit values are devolved to the administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for meeting the limit values in England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) co-ordinates assessment and air quality plans for the UK as a whole.
The UK Government and devolved administrations published a Revised UK National Air Pollution Control Programme (NAPCP) in February 2023, to meet the national emissions ceilings legislation requirements, which must be met by the UK as a whole. The NAPCP sets out measures and analysis for meeting the emission reduction commitments. The document’s origins were in EU law and the requirement on the UK Government to produce and update it will end under the EU Law Revocation and Reform Act 2023.
At a national level, the UK Government and the devolved executives are required to produce a national air quality strategy. In April 2023 the UK Government published a document, Air quality strategy: framework for local authority delivery.
Each government within the UK can also choose to publish its own air quality strategy. See in particular:
Scottish Government: Cleaner Air for Scotland 2, July 2021
Welsh Government: Clean Air Plan for Wales: Healthy Air, Healthy Wales, August 2020 and April 2023 Update Report on Progress Against Actions
Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs: Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland: A Public Discussion Document, November 2020
Enforcement mechanisms for failure to meet air quality limit values were previously carried out by EU institutions and in February 2014 the European Commission began infringement proceedings against countries including the UK for failure in certain areas to meet air quality targets for nitrogen dioxide set by the EU Air Quality Directive.
On 4 March 2021, it was found that the UK had failed to fulfil its obligations under the provisions of EU Directive 2008/50/EC and that it had failed to ensure that the period of exceedance of limit values was kept as short as possible.
Separate to the Commission proceedings, but arising from the same EU Air Quality Directive, private judicial reviews have also been brought against the UK Government stemming from the admitted and continuing failure of the United Kingdom, since 2010, to comply (in certain zones), with the limits for nitrogen dioxide levels. These proceedings have resulted in the government being required by the courts to produce a number of different air quality plans aimed at reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide levels.
Since the UK’s exit from the E, the country is no longer subject to the oversight of EU institutions and with many devolved elements, each government/executive within the UK has now put the following environmental measures in place:
In England and Northern Ireland, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), has been established.
In Scotland a public sector body called Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) has been established.
The Welsh Government plans to establish a permanent environmental governance oversight body, and for a temporary period has appointed an interim environmental protection assessor for Wales.
As of the summer of 2023, the Welsh Government is the only government in the UK to have put forward proposals for future legislation on air quality.
In 2021 the Welsh Government published a White Paper on a Clean Air (Wales) Bill, presenting proposals for a Bill before drafting legislation. Key proposals for this legislation included a requirement for a Clean Air Plan or Strategy to be reviewed at least every 5 years and powers to set air quality targets, including for PM2.5. It would also make amendments to the Local Air Quality Management Regime. The bill was introduced to the Welsh Parliament, Senedd Cymru, in March 2023 as The Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Bill.
Air quality has long been a high-profile issue, with specific concerns around human health. This was recently highlighted in the Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution, published in December 2022. Academic research has found big differences in air pollution across communities, with deprived areas often the worst affected. Children, the elderly and individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable to the effects of poor air quality. In 2020 a coroner found that air pollution was a significant contributory factor to the death of 9-year-old child.
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised questions about whether there is a link between poor air quality and Covid-19 outcomes and researchers are also beginning to examine the effect of lockdown measures on air quality.
- Syntegra offers a range of services relating to air quality consultancy. Our expert team of planning specialists, sustainability consultants and Chartered Engineers are here to help. Get in touch today for an initial discussion around air quality issues.