Forget your head, forget your heart, vote with your lungs

The EU has been key to cleaning up the air we breath. Don't let Britain become the dirty man of Europe again.

Keith Taylor
21 June 2016

London during the Great Smog in 1952, N T Stobbs, Wikimedia.

Air pollution in Britain is a pervasive killer, but it is also intangible and silent. You can rarely see it, you can't always smell it, and it is unlikely you will ever hear it. It is even less likely that you will ever hear about it, particularly if you have tuned into any of the EU referendum debate.

If you have even a passing interest in securing a healthy environment for our children and our children's children, you might have reasonably expected the non-stop coverage of the debate to mention the environmental issues that pose such an acute and significant challenge to Britain, Europe and the world, including air pollution.

However, you will be hard pressed to find any reporting, analysis, or comment on the issue in the mainstream media coverage of an EU referendum debate agenda dictated by a resurgent right-wing cabal of Conservative and UKIP politicians. Unfortunately, for the planet and our ecological security, it is a cabal of 'free-market anarchists' that is either dismissive of, or downright hostile to, environmental issues.

In their real-time EU referendum media monitoring studies, researchers at the University of Loughborough have found environmental issues are completely absent from the national discourse. But it is not for a lack of effort from groups like the Green PartyEnvironmentalist for Europe and Another Europe is Possible, who have all recognised the importance of green issues for building a positive case for Europe.

One of the pillars of that positive case is cross-border action on air quality.

Air pollution is responsible for 50,000 preventable deaths in the UK every year. It bears repeating that these deaths are entirely preventable. Poor air quality is also linked to respiratory and heart diseases that can seriously blight people's quality of life. Everyone is at risk, but children are particularly vulnerable, and if their developing lungs are affected the damage is permanent and probably life-limiting. It is a public health emergency estimated to cost the UK £20bn a year. But it is not a uniquely British problem. In fact, air pollution has no respect for national borders. It is a truly cross-border issue. One which requires truly cross-border solutions.

The British government openly admits that its efforts to improve the quality of the air that we breathe have been driven by EU laws. These are EU laws drafted in cooperation and collaboration with our closest European neighbours. The totemic legislation is the 2008 clean air directive.

The directive set legally-binding limits on toxic air pollution in towns and cities across Britain. However, the European Union's influence on UK air quality dates back to the 1970s, with the clean air directive just the latest in a series of air quality laws that have helped tackle air pollution in Britain.

The image of Britain as a 'dirty man of Europe', cast out by the continent, might seem farcical to those lucky enough to be too young to remember the 1970s when the UK was causing 'acid rain' that was destroying Scandinavian forests and lakes. But, for those of us with memories of a little more vintage, it is a useful reminder of just how far we have come by working together with our neighbours. 

Current European air quality laws are responsible for helping prevent 80,000 deaths a year across Europe. "People will die," was the cautionary and frank answer offered by environmental lawyers, and vocal air quality champions, ClientEarth when asked what would happen if Britain was cut adrift from the air quality laws it helped create.

But why would we not just uphold the laws we have now, even if we leave the European Union? It's a question I get asked a lot by concerned members of the public who are genuinely undecided about which way to cast their vote. Unfortunately, it is a question I cannot answer with absolute certainty. The only certainty about Britain leaving the EU is uncertainty. 

The government, however, has been dropping enough heavy-handed hints for me to be sure on the fate of our air quality safeguards. 

The Conservative government has turned a blind eye to the air pollution crisis, despite its promises to be the 'greenest government ever'. In fact, the government has already been successfully challenged in the Supreme Court by ClientEarth over its failure to take action to ensure that British towns and cities don't breach the air pollution limits enshrined in EU law.

Just last month, ClientEarth were again granted permission to haul the government before the courts to challenge its repeated failure to publish plans to meet the limits, as required by the initial legal challenge. Dozens of UK cities are not forecast to meet the limits until a long time after 2020. Assuming, in that time, that air pollution in the UK doesn't worsen the government is prepared to turn a blind eye to another 200,000 avoidable deaths.

More than that, UK ministers are also the most fervent lobbyists against tightening EU air pollution limits. The UK government is refusing to take the action necessary to prevent the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of Britons.

Perhaps most telling, however, is the man predicted to hold the reins of power in a post-EU Britain, Boris Johnson, has been accused of holding back a critical air pollution report. The report, now leaked, reveals that it is the poorest and most vulnerable in our towns and cities that are exposed to the highest levels of deadly air pollution. Johnson was also famously accused by the Clean Air in London campaign in 2012 of ‘public health fraud on an industrial scale’ for spraying dust suppressants in front of air quality monitors along the Olympic Route Network.

Therefore, I can reasonably assure undecided voters that, with all the evidence available, the air we breathe will become more noxious should we vote to end our collaborative relationship with the European Union.

Air enjoys the freedom of movement regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU.

And it is collaboration that is the key. Air enjoys the freedom of movement regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU. The measures taken to control toxic pollutants in France and Spain directly affect the quality of the air we breathe in Britain, and vice-versa. We need to work together to reduce the number of avoidable deaths attributed to poor air quality across Europe. That 80,000 deaths are prevented by EU air quality laws, drawn up in cooperation with British lawmakers, is a reason to celebrate our membership of the European Union.

Recognising our collective successes does not mean resting on our laurels, though. Together we can and must do more. That is why today environment ministers from across the European Union are meeting to discuss proposals for a new National Emission Ceilings Directive that will reduce air pollution at its source. The proposed law would set strict emissions limits for four deadly air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, and ammonia.

The British government has called for the proposals to be watered down, setting the scene for a fiery debate. But while the atmosphere in the room might turn toxic the fact that the debate is happening, despite the Conservative's opposition, is proof that the EU is driving positive air quality action where our national government is failing.

I cannot overstate the importance of Britain's European Union membership for improving the quality of the air we all breathe. You have heard appeals to your heart and your head, but I am calling on you to vote with your lungs.


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