Post Brexit emissions regulation poses real potential risk to UK air quality

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Potential changes to the vehicle emissions regime after Brexit could pose real risks to public health, as well as a loss of access to valuable EU markets for the £4.9bn UK motor industry, says the FIA Foundation’s latest report.

‘The Future of Road Transport Emissions Regulation in the UK after Brexit’ report - produced by air quality and climate change emissions experts, Aether, and funded by the FIA Foundation – examines some potential regulation scenarios and their impact on a post-Brexit Britain.

Poor air quality has received increased attention in recent years and the scale of the health burden, particularly in cities, is recognised as very serious issue, to which vehicles are a significant contributor. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of premature UK deaths each year as a result of air pollution, which has been described by Defra as “the largest environmental health risk in the UK.” Road transport is a key source of both greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions and is regulated almost entirely by rules which derive either directly or indirectly from EU legislation and policy.

The report examines what might happen to the regulatory framework for emissions in the UK after Brexit through three scenarios: environmental deregulation; environmental compliance; or regulatory leadership. In framing these scenarios, researchers drew upon often contradictory Government statements and policy documents, as well as the input of motoring industry representatives, environmental and health experts.

First, there is the Government’s stated intention to take a ‘world leading’ position on environmental protection and strengthen emissions regulation beyond EU levels. There is little evidence to indicate this as a likely outcome, but the report notes this would be the best option in terms of industry, public health, and environment benefits.

Some Government statements have suggested that the UK will, in fact, remain in line with European legislation. Comparisons have been made with countries such as Norway and Iceland, however, these relationships are not directly transferrable as they supply raw materials rather than fully manufactured cars. The report concludes that whilst this scenario might aid the free movement of goods and avoid tariffs, it leaves open the fact that some environmental regulations will not be transposed into UK law by the EU Withdrawal Act. These include core elements of recent environmental legislation, such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the current system for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars in the EU. The European Court of Justice would not be available to reinforce that legislation, removing a significant element of enforcement. It remains to be seen what the Government proposes to put in its place. Equally important, the UK would lose its seat at the table in influencing this key aspect of the EU legislative process.

The report also notes that a third scenario which reflects the strongly deregulatory rationale for Brexit poses a real risk to UK public health as a result of relatively worse air quality and a far lower chance of avoiding damaging climate change. It is also a severe threat to the UK based vehicle and parts manufacturing industry, currently worth £4.9bn to the UK economy.

Regulatory inconsistency would also remove the possibility of frictionless movement across the UK-EU border making UK products more expensive, slower to access and less desirable in a highly integrated and competitive market. Failing to update any transposed legislation would also pose this risk.

Tim Williamson, Principal Consultant at Aether, said: “Our research shows that de-regulation following Brexit would be very damaging for public health, the environment and for the vehicle industry. Taking a leadership position offers the greatest benefit but this needs to go beyond Ministerial statements and be embedded in legislation.”

Saul Billingsley, Executive Director of the FIA Foundation, said: “This report clearly shows that the many uncertainties over the longer-term status of emissions regulation in the UK post-Brexit, pose a significant environmental and public-health risk. Toxic vehicle emissions are contributing to a public health crisis, in which our children suffer the most, and we need the UK Government to be at the forefront of addressing this threat. The least that the children of the UK deserve is the reassurance that the UK Government is not taking risks with their health and their lives.”

Read the ‘The Future of Road Transport Emissions Regulation in the UK after Brexit’ report here.