Claude Moraes MEP: EU laws can only do so much to tackle air pollution

As the UK’s summer arrives, the EU remains our only progressive ally in the fight for clean air and air quality in our cities, writes Claude Moraes MEP.

The EU referendum debate is yet again centre stage, but a reminder that the EU has been a major progressive ally in key environmental issues which have had a practical and positive effect on our lives here in the UK should never be forgotten.

One area of current tension and conflict as the summer heat finally arrives in my city of London is the way that the EU remains the key standard bearer for clean air and the fight against higher levels of child asthma and 29,000 early deaths in the UK, more than the deaths from alcohol and obesity combined, caused as a result of air pollution.

The key problem is that when the EU works in cross border issues like this we need partners who act in good faith. Today in London with a Conservative Mayor that is simply not happening.

There is now overwhelming and unquestionable scientific evidence to show that air pollution in cities poses one of the most serious threats to public health in Britain today.

Last week’s article in the Guardian by John Vidal highlighted a new WHO report calling for greater action by the EU to combat the rise of fine particle matter and gases such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in our air, following conclusions in the report which show that considerable health effects occur at levels well below current EU limits.

The EU is aware that more action must be taken; this is why the European Commission is currently reviewing the EU’s approach to air pollution. 2013 is the EU Year of Air, just one part of a package of measures to focus the attention of policy makers on the vital task of cleaning up Europe’s air.

On 3rd July the European Parliament voted to halt the sale of the newest tranche of carbon credits under the Emissions Trading Scheme. This crucial move will allow carbon credits, which are currently almost worthless in value, to appreciate and make polluters pay for what they pump into our air.

The upcoming revision of the National Emissions Ceiling Directive will seek to update the current EU air pollution emission limits to take account of the newest scientific information.

But the EU can only do so much, as I know from experience. Over the past months I have written a series of Parliamentary Questions to the Commission and Council asking what action they can take on air pollution, as the evidence has built up that my constituency of London is in breach of the EU’s air quality limits.

I have also worked closely with the Clean Air in London campaign and ClientEarth, as we look for ways to force action on the scandalous state of London’s air quality. London is now recognised as one of the most polluted cities in Europe, with 4,300 early deaths caused each year as a result of air pollution.

Real change can only happen on a national basis, as responsibility for tackling London air pollution lies with the UK government and partly with the Mayor of London’s office. It is the Mayor who must implement city-wide measures to tackle pollution hotspots – an issue which Boris Johnson has not taken seriously.

The Mayor’s flagship innovation has been to spray glue onto the roads of traffic hotspots, in the hope that the pollution will stick to the tarmac. A study by Kings College London has shown this to be a total failure, costing the taxpayer £1.43 million.

In contrast, Boris has hailed this scheme as a “wonderful contraption that tackles air quality head on.” It is easy to see how seriously he takes the problem.

His record on air quality is one which runs through the Conservative-led coalition, with the UK Supreme Court ruling in May that the UK government was in breach of EU air quality limits, subjecting the public to illegal levels of NO2.

Despite this, in June the UK government supported calls from The Netherlands to relax existing EU environmental laws.

The EU can only do so much. It is national governments that have responsibility for meeting limits set by the EU’s Air Quality Directive, but our government is fighting tooth and nail to resist compliance, and development of safer limits.

Claude Moraes is MEP for London and Deputy Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.

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