The European Commission just handed the UK its “final warning” over breaches of air quality controls, though it isn’t clear whether that’s a bureaucratic escalation or an acknowledgement that Brexit is just weeks away from becoming a reality. The BBC reports:
[The European Commission] said limits had been repeatedly exceeded in 16 areas including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow…The commission said if countries did not take action within two months it could take the matter to the European Court of Justice.
Under EU law, when air pollution limits are breached member states have to implement air quality plans to bring the levels back down…Asked whether the UK would remain bound by any legal proceedings after Brexit, Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein said: “For as long as the UK is a member of the European Union, rights and obligations apply…European law applies fully.”
The optics of a final warning issued during the eleventh hour of Britain’s membership of the EU are interesting in their own right, but there’s a bigger story here. We typically think of deadly air pollution as a problem reserved for more industrial developing countries (like India and China), rather than one that the developed West still wrangles with. But the European Commission didn’t just hit the UK with a warning this week, it also cautioned Italy, Spain, Germany, and France over elevated nitrous dioxide levels.
The common thread that runs through all of those countries is easy to identify: a high reliance on diesel-powered cars and trucks. Diesel gets higher mileage than the kind of unleaded gasoline most American cars run on, and the EU has encouraged it as a fuel type in order to help meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets. But diesel also has more noxious (pun intended) tailpipe emissions—like nitrous oxides—and as a result, it’s creating clouds of smog in many of Europe’s bigger cities.
This isn’t the first time we’re hearing of this, either. The World Health Organization warned Europe over these elevated nitrous dioxide and fine particulate levels last year. Two months ago, we learned that London was a world leader in nitrous oxide levels, and that the high concentration of the gas was taking years off the lives of thousands of Londoners. The director of King’s College London’s air quality center, Gary Fuller, summed things up nicely, calling the city’s air quality “a complete policy failure,” and concluding that “no one could defend this.”
Leaving the EU might save Britain from being dragged into the European Court of Justice, but it won’t address the root of the problem.