Brexit May Turn London’s Fog to Smog If U.K. Ditches EU Rules

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The Houses of Parliament and the river Thames are shrouded in early morning fog in London.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
  • S&P Global calls air-quality issues ‘very serious’ for U.K.
  • WHO estimates $83 billion annual burden in U.K from bad air

Londoners may find it harder to catch their breath if the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union weakens air-quality standards, according to S&P Global Inc.

Inside the 28-nation bloc, the U.K. is legally bound to keep air pollution below regulatory thresholds. Once the country formally makes its exit, there’s no guarantee those EU limits will still be observed.

“This is a very serious issue for the U.K.,” said Michael Wilkins, managing director of infrastructure ratings at S&P, in a report on Wednesday. “Post-Brexit, it could be more difficult to hold the government accountable for air quality standards.”

London has repeatedly broken EU air-quality rules. It took the city just eight days in 2016 to breach the annual cap on nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Almost all the pollution is emitted by cars and trucks, according to the International Energy Agency. The World Heath Organization estimates air pollution annually costs the U.K. 62 billion pounds ($83 billion).

Government officials are divided on this issue. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs previously sought to slow the pace of implementing EU pollution limits, saying it was unable to meet 2010 rules until at least 2025. London mayor Sadiq Khan, elected in May, has said he will fight to keep pollution on the capital city’s agenda.

The EU regulations will still apply until the U.K. formally leaves the union, which will take at least two years. Even if the U.K. strikes a deal to remain in the European Economic Area free-trade zone, enforcing the standards could become more difficult.

“Leaving the EU would mean that the U.K. government would no longer face fines from the European Court of Justice,” said Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, a legal group that successfully sued the U.K. government in 2011 over its failure to cut pollution. “The future is obviously uncertain and depends what the deal is with our exit from the EU.”

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