• Which EU Laws on Air Quality Will the UK Retain?

Air Monitoring

Which EU Laws on Air Quality Will the UK Retain?

May 24 2023

On the last day of January in 2020, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, automatically entering a transitional period during which certain laws were retained whilst the new shape of British legislation was decided. Three years on, both Houses are currently debating the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which would grant Parliament powers to pick and choose which of the EU’s laws they’d like to keep, amend or get rid of. Although it’s yet to pass the Lords, the Conservatives have been pretty forthcoming with the laws that they’re eyeing up. Initially, around 4,000 pieces of legislation were on the chopping block, but this number has since been reduced to approximately 600 - to the chagrin of Brexit die-hards and the strained applause of those fearing the loss of significant legislation, with over half of the laws on the latest kill-list pertaining to environmental health. So, for regulators and manufacturers in the environmental monitoring sector, the question remains: just how much will be changing as a result of this so-called ‘bonfire of EU laws’? 

Well, let’s focus on air quality. One of the 600 statutes set to be abolished is the National Emission Ceilings Regulations (2018), which primarily concerns the government's responsibility in establishing and consulting on a pathway to hit certain emissions targets by 2030 for: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), lead, benzene, carbon monoxide and ozone. It’s this responsibility to be transparent about exactly how the government intends to secure reductions that is in danger of being from struck from the books if the Bill goes through, which critics say significantly loosens protocols crucial to the meeting of urgent targets. Katie Nield, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth, has publicly expressed her concern that these proposals will fracture the obligation to expose plans to public scrutiny, severely impairing the mechanisms by which the government might be held to account on an issue as vital to public health as air quality. 

This movement towards unaccountability on air quality is, however, part of a wider trend. Recently, for instance, the government's existing reduction plan had to be change because it had failed to achieve specified reduction targets for PM2.5 and as things stand, the government will fail to hit its 2030 targets for four other air pollutants. In such circumstances, critics like Nield are unconvinced that removing the responsibility to publicise and frequently revise these air quality programmes will help the situation.  

Other advocacy groups, like the mega-advocate Greener UK (whose members are other organizations like the RSPB, National Trust, and Friends of the Earth), have launched similar defences of soon-to-be-axed laws, like the rules around Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for water resources. If the Bill passes, these protocols could be repealed before the end of 2023, with little hope of replacements arriving before the following Spring. In the meantime, our already over-exposed water resources will be made even more vulnerable, say Greener UK. As such, they recommend excluding them from the 600. 

So, while the government's position is that the abolition of these retained laws will simplify the regulatory landscape and will not include the amendment of targets themselves, its critics argue that the technicalities of the proposed excisions may weaken environmental protections and hinder improvements. But as the United Kingdom continues to experiment with a new environmental settlement post-Brexit, such tensions are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.   

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