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Opinion: why Britain should leave the EU

Noel Lock, co-founder of Bath-based LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) firm the Greenfuel Company, argues that the UK would be better placed to tackle air pollution if it left the EU

Noel Lock, co-founder of Bath-based LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) firm the Greenfuel Company, argues that the UK would be better placed to tackle air pollution if it left the EU.

Greenfuel Company co-founder Noel Lock

Greenfuel Company co-founder Noel Lock

Britain’s most prominent environmental campaigners seem unanimous in their view that Britain leaving the European Union would have disastrous environmental consequences; that the UK would return to being the ‘dirty man of Europe’ (see AirQualityNews.com story). I disagree and am far from satisfied with the current status quo.

If you are reading this you have an interest in air quality and presume that you know more about it than me. You are probably right, I am not a scientist. However, I have learnt in the years since founding Greenfuel in 2003 that when it comes to the environment, politics trump science every time.

Leave aside the xenophobic/Islamaphobic dog-whistle politics. I know from my years living in Holland that we have much to learn from our different continental neighbours in all fields but particularly environmental. For example, ‘Copenhagenise’ is now a word, a good word and a valuable concept. For years I have lamented the comparison between Europe’s enthusiasm for alternative fuels and our own feeble efforts. Equally, I wish to avoid repeating Caroline Lucas’ Pythonesque list of all the things that the EU have done for us from Question Time (we wear seat belts because we are in the EU? Really?).

Diesel

I am not happy with Europe’s dash for diesel, the estimated 430,000 annual deaths from air pollution and the link between the two. I am not alone. Whilst, Stanley Johnson heads up E4E, his son has described ‘the dash’ as a catastrophic failure in public policy. Sadly, almost every vehicle purchased during his tenure as Mayor of London has been wholly or partially diesel-powered. Meanwhile, America, Japan and every other developed country outside of Europe have looked on with appalled fascination at our diesel folly.

“I am not happy with Europe’s dash for diesel, the estimated 430,000 annual deaths from air pollution and the link between the two. I am not alone.”

Some are defiantly proud: “State-of-the-art technology means diesel-powered cars are now ‘air-cleaning machines’ as their emissions are less dirty than the air they take in,â€? claimed Bosch chief executive Volkmar Denner at a press briefing last month. I doubt that Herr Denner actually believes this and I suspect that he would be as surprised as everyone else if a network of diesel engines were installed on our cities’ pavements to clean the air. On the other hand Herr Denner knows that he has one of the world’s largest and most expensive lobbying machine installed in Brussels. This lobbying behemoth recently secured another Brussels victory for diesel. You may not like it, but you cannot argue against its track record.

The science is simple about clean or dirty combustion. CBeebies covered this in an accessible way. The chemistry sets that are bolted on to our exhaust systems are prone to failure through cold weather, stop/start traffic, long working life, poor maintenance or simple removal. The new plan to generate huge volumes of ammonia as anti-pollution (diesel Euro VI) in our cities really is as bad an idea as it sounds.

‘Ok,’ you say, ‘maybe diesel is a miss, maybe the American EPA are better custodians of clean air, maybe we have to accept a little cut in our life expectancy,’ but we have to look at the bigger picture. No system is perfect and the EU has developed a great body of environmental legislation protecting ourselves and our natural world. True. Pollution is no respecter of political boundaries and nothing screams international co-operation more than global warming.

“In the end it comes down to how we get the best decision making from the most democratically accountable leadership. In my opinion, the EU is not delivering.”

Unfortunately, I believe that air pollution is a huge and urgent issue – a public health emergency – and the EU do not have a good enough track record in rising to this scale of challenge. Did the EU look strong in the Ukrainian crisis? Has the policy of ‘extend and pretend’ solved the Greek situation? Has the EU been decisive in responding to the ‘Arab Spring’ and the dreadful slaughter in Syria and elsewhere? None of these seismic events have easy solutions but there must be better than bodged delayed compromise.

Clean Air Act II

Sixty years ago London had an air quality crisis and our politicians responded with a solution that was both decisive and brave and it worked. It cannot have been easy to implement such a change of behaviour in the face of vested interests. There was no ‘Brussels’ to turn to or blame.

We need Clean Air Act II, whereupon diesel vehicles are banned from our town and city centres. We will not have politicians capable of rising to this challenge until they are wholly and solely accountable to us. I wonder how many people could name their MEP? The ‘faceless out-of-touch politicians of Brussels’ is a real problem. MPs enjoy greater recognition. We need them to be the front line of decision making and for them to know it. We need a government that governs. We need to know who we vote for and who to point the finger at if we are dissatisfied. Breathing is personal and so must be our relationship with our politicians.

In the end it comes down to how we get the best decision making from the most democratically accountable leadership. In my opinion, the EU is not delivering.

Beyond the politicians let us remember that Britain is a country of great institutions such as the National Trust, the RSPCA, the RSPB, the Soil Association to name just a very few. Let us not underplay both what we can and have done.

In the end it may not matter whether you are pro or anti membership of the European Union. Many experienced political commentators believe that Britain will remain within the EU whichever way the vote goes in the referendum. As it happens, I am not very happy about this either.

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The Doctor
The Doctor
5 years ago

“Sadly, almost every vehicle purchased during his tenure as Mayor of London has been wholly or partially diesel-powered.”
And why is this the fault of the EU rather than UK/London policy?

The Doctor
The Doctor
5 years ago

“We need Clean Air Act II, whereupon diesel vehicles are banned from our town and city centres. We will not have politicians capable of rising to this challenge until they are wholly and solely accountable to us.”

We were supposed to meet the current required NO2 concentrations not in 2010 to comply with EU legislation, but in 2004 to comply with our own UK domestic legislation.

This illustrates not only that we pay no regard to our own legislation, but the entire rush to try and do something about air quality now is ENTIRELY because of the need to comply with EU legislation.

Don’t think for a moment that our government (particularly this one) would have any significant interest in clean air in cities if it wasn’t for Europe.

CaresAboutHealth
CaresAboutHealth
5 years ago

Everyone should read the Daily Mail’s excellent summary of the politics of air pollution: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3467612/Why-diesel-car-greatest-s-touted-low-carbon-fuel-s-cost-tens-thousands-lives-air-filthier.html
“Last week, a devastating official report said the drive for diesel and wood-burning are directly responsible for needlessly high incidences of a shocking list of conditions including diabetes, autism, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, learning difficulties, asthma, low birth weight and kidney disease.”

The box in the middle of the page summaries repeated attempts to warn politicians:
“The health crisis triggered by the switch to diesel cars and burning wood follows years of warnings by experts that this would cost lives. This is the chronology ….
1989 Cancer alert ….1993 Deaths will rise …. 1996-7 Tax folly …. 1999 Diesel boosted …. 2002 Fears suppressed … 2007 ‘Highly detrimental’ …. 2009 Killer stoves …. 2010-2016 Smoke up …. 2016 – 40,000 deaths

Although the same (and worse) mistakes were made in Europe, the evidence cited above suggests that UK politicians were equally culpable and equally stupid in not heeding the warnings. It’s not time for the UK to set its own air quality guidelines based on the World Health Organization recommendations. The EEC PM2.5 standards are a joke – they were based on political expediency and lull the public into a false sense of security. The first step towards cleaning up the air is to adopt the WHO guidelines and issue health alerts to draw public attention to the problem every time the WHO limits are exceeded.