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Air pollution

June 2016 - June 2017


The government is currently in breach of the Ambient Air Quality Directive. It produced a plan in May 2017 to meet the legal limits set out in that directive, but that plan has been widely criticised for not doing enough. The government’s reluctance is concerning as an indication of its likely approach to implementing air quality standards after the UK leaves the EU.

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Principles & strategies
The Great Repeal Bill White Paper fails to give a clear commitment to carrying across the general principles in the EU treaties that underpin air quality policy, such as the goals of sustainable development and a high level of environmental protection, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

The government’s stated goal in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper is to “ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law”. This broad commitment is reassuring, yet it is stated elsewhere that the bill will only convert EU law into domestic law “wherever practical and sensible”, and it is not yet clear whether this could create gaps in environmental protections.

Given that the UK is currently in breach of the nitrogen dioxide limits in large parts of the country, there is a risk that limits could be weakened after Brexit, to make it easier for the government to meet its legal requirements.

Capacity & funding
Defra is due to see a 15 per cent reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020. It is unclear whether it will be able to cope with any additional workload associated with the transposition of all EU rules to the UK, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. Most of this effort has happened at EU level thus far.
The Great Repeal Bill White Paper does not make clear what (if any) domestic governance arrangements will be put in place to replace the European Court of Justice and the role it jointly plays with other EU institutions in providing the monitoring, oversight, accountability, and enforcement functions required to ensure the effective implementation of air quality legislation. This is a particular challenge in the case of air quality, for which the UK government is already undergoing infringement proceedings.
It is unclear whether and how the UK will continue to co-operate with the rest of the EU on transboundary air pollution after Brexit.