The lesson of Dieselgate: time for strong, effective pollution laws

| 4th April 2017
Thick winter smog over London, 14th January 2012. Photo: stu mayhew via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Thick winter smog over London, 14th January 2012. Photo: stu mayhew via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
MEPs vote today on proposals to cut air pollution by setting up an independent EU monitoring body to ensure that a scandal like Dieselgate never happens again, writes Keith Taylor. However fears are growing that Brexit promises the UK a bonfire of environmental laws including those on air pollution. We need a strong, new Clean Air Act now!
It couldn't be clearer that Conservative politicians left to their own devices will, at best, ignore the air quality crisis and, at worst, advocate on behalf of those responsible for worsening it rather than its victims.

Today, MEPs will vote on Green proposals to introduce a new EU-wide independent and neutral surveillance body in response to the 'Dieselgate' scandal. The plan has already been passed by the Environment Committee on which I sit.

The proposed 'EU market surveillance agency' would have the power to test vehicle emissions in the laboratory as well as monitoring them under real driving conditions, and publish its findings, making sure any breaches of the rules are brought into the open.

They wouldn't be in charge of fines or punishments - that power would remain with the European Commission - but having an independent and transparent agency would make sure that problems are spotted and force EU governments and the Commission to take swift and decisive action.

The scandal implicated most major car manufacturers in a concerted, deliberate and criminal effort to commit emissions fraud.

Manufacturers employed so-called 'defeat devices' to trick laboratory tests into thinking their cars produced much lower levels of nitrogen oxide emissions.

Nitrogen oxides react in the atmosphere to form nitrogen dioxide; an air pollutant that is toxic to human health.

The Dieselgate inquiry committee's report into the scandal is clear that both member states and the EU Commission are guilty of maladministration and are not sufficiently impartial to avoid a similar scandal happening again. It is obviously not enough, in that case, to merely ask our national governments and the Commission to do better next time.

European citizens have twice been the victim of Dieselgate; through their exposure to toxic fumes and the complete contempt for their consumer rights.

An independent agency ensures that the law, which is unambiguous in its prohibition of 'defeat devices' and its requirement that emission limits be met on the road as well as in the laboratory, is properly enforced and doesn't bend to commercial pressures.

Dieselgate was a problem of too little Europe - not too much!

The greatest opposition we face is from Tory MEPs

The UK Conservative MEPs are the biggest opponents of not just the creation of an independent oversight body but of the Dieselgate report itself, which excoriates their friends in the car industry. The inquiry's Tory rapporteur even tried to water down its findings.

But we should not be surprised by this. In fact, taken with the UK Government's promise of a bonfire of regulations, Tory opposition to these safeguarding measures offer an alarming insight into what kind of (lack of) protections the British public can expect outside of the EU.

It couldn't be clearer that Conservative politicians left to their own devices will, at best, ignore the air quality crisis and, at worst, advocate on behalf of those responsible for worsening it rather than its victims.

Despite publishing some of the details of the so-called Great Repeal Bill, the legislation intended to transfer EU laws onto the UK statute books post-Brexit, the Government has failed to commit to maintaining vital EU air quality laws.

Indeed speaking to House of Commons environment committee in January, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom indicated that about a third of the EU's 800 laws on the environment might be too difficult to transpose.

The failure to commit to keeping air quality laws is symptomatic of a disturbing indifference to an air pollution crisis responsible for the preventable deaths of equivalent to 50,000 people in Britain every year.

Even if Theresa May did, finally, commit to the EU clean air directives then, post-Brexit, the cynical amongst us would draw your attention to the complete absence of any body to enforce the regulations - regulations that the government is only being forced to acknowledge now thanks to EU oversight.

The UK Government's repeated air pollution failures

Earlier this year, the European Commission was forced to send a final warning to the UK for failing to address repeated breaches of legal air pollution limits in 16 areas including, London, Birmingham and my constituency of the South East.

The notice was served only months after environmental lawyers ClientEarth won its second court case against the government for its failure to set out a credible plan to deal with illegal air pollution across the UK.

It couldn't be clearer that Conservative politicians left to their own devices will, at best, ignore the air quality crisis and, at worst, advocate on behalf of those responsible for worsening it rather than its victims - the very British citizens it claims to be standing up for.

The failure highlighted by the European Commission is as much moral as it is legal, with Ministers displaying a deeply worrying indifference towards their duty to safeguard the health of British citizens.

That the European Commission is having to hold the government to account for a public health crisis that costs the British public more than £20bn a year, is a cautionary glimpse of what we might expect from a Conservative Party free of the auspices of the EU.

Inside the EU, the Tories can be held accountable for their failures

As a member of the European Union, Theresa May's administration is being held to account for failing to do the bare minimum, as required by EU air quality laws the UK itself helped to set. The bare minimum.

Where embraced and enforced, EU air pollution limits are helping to prevent thousands of deaths every year and saving billions of pounds in direct health costs. The government even readily acknowledges that it is EU law that has been the main driver of any positive air quality action in the UK.

The Prime Minister's plan, as much as one exists, for an extreme Brexit puts all these safeguards at risk. Should they be maintained via the Great Repeal Bill, Theresa May plans to invoke the ancient, arbitrary powers of Britain's most infamous an despotic Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, which would give her the ability to later repeal them later at her whim without parliamentary scrutiny.

It seems Britain is faced with three likely extreme Brexit air pollution scenarios, under which the Tory government:

  • omits air quality laws from the Great Repeal Bill;
  • includes air quality laws in the Great Repeal Bill but (lacking the oversight of the European Court of Justice and the Commission) they remain unenforced; or
  • includes air quality laws in the Great Repeal Bill, but later repeal them without scrutiny.

Time for a new Clean Air Act!

The other question is what happens in the EU after Brexit. There the news may be somewhat better. The UK has repeatedly sought to block and undermine European environmental legislation.

With our government and right-wing MEPs out of the picture, it's all the more likely that EU air quality laws will be strengthened and enforced. It's just too bad that UK citizens may no longer be in a position to benefit.

That's why I'm fighting for Britain to maintain the closest possible relationship with our European Neighbours via membership of the Single Market so that we might maintain these vital safeguards.

I'm also calling on Theresa May to enshrine in UK law a new Clean Air Act that to ensure strong, effective protection of our citizens' health from air pollution.



Keith Taylor is the Green Party MEP for South East England.


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