Climate change is among the challenges that lie ahead for Brexit Britain but should we automatically assume it means the momentum to reduce air pollution will be lost? James Allan doesn’t think so.
One of the big questions for the environmental science community arising from Brexit is what will happen to UK environmental policy if we are no longer bound by the relevant directives and left to go our own way without fear of measures for non-compliance.
Reasons to be hopeful
My personal opinion is that within air quality specifically, we have plenty of grounds to be hopeful that national and local governments will not simply give up on this pressing issue. Air quality has been identified as one of the single biggest public health issues in the UK; high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and ozone contribute massively to problems associated with heart and lung function and reduce the average life expectancy of UK residents, in particular those in inner city areas.
To put the obvious ethical and moral issues aside for one second, the burden that this places on the NHS and also the reduction in worker productivity due to sickness provide a fiscal motivation for policymakers to strive to continue to improve air quality. It is worth remembering that the UK is no stranger to air quality protection outside of EU directives; the Clean Air Act (1956) was a particularly successful piece of legislation in improving quality of life within UK cities and we will continue to remain within other international schemes such as the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.
It is also worth pointing out that because of the realities of the automotive industry, the vehicles being built and bought within the UK are likely to remain compliant with increasingly strict EU regulations, irrespective of what our future legislation is. As such, we have every reason to expect efforts to improve air quality will continue (such as the recently-announced plan to pedestrianise Oxford Street in London), although naturally, only time will tell how successful they are.
A separate big fear within the general scientific community is what will happen to UK research if we are cut off from EU networks and initiatives such as Horizon 2020. Before now, air quality research has benefitted from our involvement in projects such as EUCAARI and ACTRIS and while it is true that non-EU countries can and do participate in these activities, the recent curtailing of Swiss access in response to immigration restrictions (which came about because of an even closer referendum result than ours) provides a worrying precedent for what we can expect if freedom of movement is restricted here.
I would consider it a tragedy if we were to rule ourselves out of future European-level work, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what kind of deal the government negotiates over the coming years.