Alex tells us about what it’s like dealing with air pollution as a resident in Brussels, and gives us a rare insight into how environmental and pollution policy actually gets formed within European Parliament, legislation that affects the health and wellbeing of the EU’s enormous population of 508 million.
Additionally, Alex gives us a timely insight into what Brexit could mean for air pollution in the UK.
With important new legislation just passed for the whole of the EU’s air pollution policy in the form of the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) and the future of the UK’s air pollution control quite literally up in the air, this is a crucial time for tackling air quality in Europe.
Q. Alex - how long have you been living in Brussels, and what brought you there originally?
A. I have been in Belgium for about 4 and a half years ... I first came to Brussels [from the UK] for an internship in the European Parliament after which I moved to Bruges where I studied for a masters ... Following this I came back to Brussels ... and have since worked as a public affairs consultant on environment and climate policy and since September 2014 I have worked in the European Parliament for Seb Dance, a Labour MEP for London.
Q. Do you feel aware of air pollution as an issue living in Brussels? Do you have any memorable experiences of air pollution, or do you feel that fellow residents regard air pollution as a concern?
A. Aside from working on air pollution policy in the European Parliament, it's difficult not to be aware of the problem of air pollution in Brussels.
We have had smog episodes recently, like in other cities like Paris and London, and several friends and colleagues have developed respiratory issues, which they are sure have been aggravated by pollution.
Walking and cycling to work it's pretty obvious how bad the air quality is, especially around the Rue de la Loi area where there is tons of traffic. If you wipe your finger across the windows of the buildings along Rue de la Loi you can see how much soot has settled. An area in the centre of Brussels ... has recently been pedestrianised, which shows the authorities are starting to take action. And in cities like Paris, the mayor is taking measures to start to phase out cars with the oldest dirtiest engines. I think it's likely that cities such as Brussels will follow suit. The problem is such that it needs radical measures to be taken – in London alone around 10,000 premature deaths every year are linked to air pollution. I don't think there are figures for Brussels.
Forming EU air quality legislation - and the role of agriculture in European air pollution
Q. I understand Dance is involved in a lot of work on European air quality policy, and scrutinising how this affects the UK. Can you tell us about the work you do in this area?
A. Seb Dance is a member of the European Parliament Environment committee (ENVI). This means he works on all legislative proposals that come through the ENVI committee, including files related to air pollution. For example we have just concluded a file called the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) which is a crucial piece of legislation that sets limits (or ceilings) for each Member State for six toxic pollutants covering sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter, non-methane volatile organic compounds, ammonia and methane.
This has been a politically very difficult file to work on due to huge resistance from Member State governments in the Council of the European Union … and from the agricultural lobby. The European Parliament supported a much higher level of ambition – which would have required more action by Member States to tackle pollution and would have saved more lives.
Unfortunately there was a huge lobbying effort by the agricultural industry, directly and through their national governments, to water down the ambition level, in particular for emission reduction commitments on ammonia and methane – pollutants linked to farming but which cause considerable air pollution problems in cities as they react in the atmosphere to make ozone and secondary particulates and carry through the air many hundreds of miles ...
Farming in Perthshire, Scotland. Brian Forbes / CC BY 2.0
Farmers don't want to take action to reduce pollution despite the fact that they are the only polluting sector not to have made any noticeable progress in reducing pollution.
As Seb represents London – air pollution is a big priority for us. London is one of the worst affected cities in Europe by pollution. During the negotiations we called for strict and binding pollution reduction targets for 2020, 2025 and 2030 including ammonia and methane; access to justice for NGOs and the public if national governments fail to act; and greater powers for local authorities to tackle the problem.
… To get to the stage when an agreement is reached involves lots of political meetings firstly between the different political groups in the European Parliament and then political discussions between the European Parliament and the Member States to work out a final text for the legislation. In the case of the NECD, the gap between the two institutions was huge so it took a lot of hard negotiations to find a deal.
Ultimately the legislation will ensure EU countries take measures to ensure they reduce toxic pollution and by 2030 it is expected that the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution will have been halved.
The uncertain future of the UK’s air post-Brexit
Q. As I’m sure you are acutely aware, following last month’s dramatic referendum, Britain voted to leave the EU, a separation now due to happen within the next two years. What are your thoughts on how leaving the EU - thus shedding accountability to these rules - may affect air quality issues within the UK?
Oxford Street - one of the UK's most polluted roads. Ysangkok / CC BY 3.0
A. EU rules have been turned to time and time again to hold the British government to account on air pollution. For example the recent Client Earth case brought against the UK government for failing to act on reducing NO2 emissions. This would not have been possible without recourse to EU legislation. After the Brexit vote, these protections are in serious peril. If we lost them, a new UK Clean Air Act will be crucial.
The inconvenient truth for Brexiteers is that air pollution does not respect borders: over one-third of the UK's air pollution is blown in from across the English Channel.
Regarding Post-Brexit options and consequences. One option will be European Economic Area (EEA) membership. This would give the UK full access to the single market but in return, it would have to accept most EU laws, including those regulating air pollution. However, joining the EEA will not be very appealing to the Brexiteers as it would involve accepting most EU laws with almost no say in how they are passed – which is why we argued so strongly against leaving the EU in the first place!
Another option would be a bilateral trade agreement, which would mean environmental laws would have to be negotiated as part of any deal – but would not likely be a priority for a right wing UK government, with a mandate from a Eurosceptic Tory membership. Furthermore the UK would no longer be subject to case law of the European Court of Justice, which has played an important role in conferring rights on citizens allowing them to go before national courts to enforce EU law, in particular laws related to air pollution. In brief, the outlook is not good in the long term!
The role of technology in tackling air pollution
Q. Finally, as you know we are a company seeking to address the air pollution crisis through using technology, improving people’s access to air quality data in order to protect themselves and prompt action.
What role do you feel technology and monitoring air pollution has to play in improving air quality globally?
A. Technology can play a very important role in raising awareness about the issue of air pollution. The problem with more modern air pollution – like NOx – is that it’s invisible so people don't realise how bad the air around them is. Technology that informs people and monitors the real impact of the air you're breathing will really help move the debate on and help move it up the political agenda.
Find out more about Seb Dance’s campaign against air pollution in London and Europe here.