Brexit, BoJo and the Conservative Party, and Air Pollution in London and Beyond: What A Mess

A recent study by the International Energy Agency on Air Pollution and Energy highlights the risks to which people, especially in urban areas, are exposed from air pollution. The study is unusual in that, for the first time, the IEA is addressing the role of energy in air pollution. The agency concluded that energy production and use is the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity and that this extension of its work reflects a “new vision” for the IEA. Rather than simply quantifying the use of energy and its sources, the IEA has decided that addressing the adverse impacts from such use on the air we breathe was necessary for both developed and developing countries.

The study indicates that there are 18,000 deaths each day as a result of air pollution, or 6.5 million deaths a year, more than for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined. Air pollution is the 4th largest threat to human health after high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.

Indoor air pollution accounts for 3.5 million deaths, largely from burning wood and other solid fuels for cooking and kerosene for lighting and cooking, while outdoor air accounts for 3 million deaths, largely from power plants and urban vehicle emissions.

The IEA study confirms what Client Earth has been arguing in its litigation against the recalcitrant UK government, under the Conservative party, for failing to abide by European Union laws and regulations covering air quality. The Client Earth five-year case centres on illegal levels under EU law of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas emitted mainly by diesel vehicles. Recent studies show that the premature deaths from air pollution in London in 2010 were about 9,500, with 5,000 deaths from exposure to nitrogen dioxide.

Greenpeace Nelson wiht gas mask copy







The UK Supreme Court has already found that the UK Conservative government is culpable in ignoring EU law and has failed in its obligations to clean the air in UK urban areas. The Supreme Court ordered the government to implement timely plans to address the toxic air in London and other urban centers. Client Earth has had to go back to court because the government’s plans are not timely but reflect continuing delay in doing what is necessary to protect its citizens. The case, now in the High Court, has recently been fast-tracked by the British court. Just recently the current Labour party Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has joined with ClientEarth in the lawsuit against the UK government.

This proactive position by Khan stands in sharp contrast to the position of his predecessor. No one has been more recalcitrant in avoiding dealing with toxic air in London than Boris Johnson, or Bo Jo, the former Conservative party mayor and leading voice in persuading the British to leave the EU.

In his recent column in The Telegraph about the implications of Brexit, Johnson proclaimed that, “There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment.”

Here are two instances of how Johnson improved the air in London while mayor.

In 2012 and 2103, including during the Olympics in London, Johnson had city workers spray a sticky salt spray, that acted like a glue, on streets where the air was being monitored for compliance with EU laws and regulations. The city called the glue a ‘dust suppressant” that was sprayed on the streets to pick up dust, which of course then hid the real levels of contaminants in the air in any sampling or monitoring of London’s air. In effect, Johnson used a “sampling data suppressant,” not a dust suppressant to hide the true levels of pollutants in London’s air.

In 2015, Johnson released the positive aspects of a report on some improvements to London air quality but withheld the negative aspects of the report that London’s illegal air pollution was disproportionately impacting deprived schools in the city.

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While Johnson just yesterday announced he was not putting himself forward as a candidate for leader of the Conservative party, it is safe to assume that the Conservative party’s disregard for the quality of the air in London, even when faced with EU fines for non-compliance, remains unchanged. Any negotiation with the EU to get access to its single market will not include hard bargaining for strict environmental standards and enforcement mechanisms.  We will continue to rely on ClientEarth to work hard to protect the air of the citizens of London and other urban areas.


International Energy Agency (IEA), Energy and Air Pollution: World Energy Outlook Special Report (27 June 2016).

See video Interview with Alan Andrews, Head of Air Program, ClientEarth, in the Podcast section of irish environment magazine (1 April 2015), on the work of ClientEarth and an anatomy of the litigation against the UK for breaches of nitrogen dioxide limit values under EU law.

Client Earth, ClientEarth clean air case fast-tracked (16 June 2016)

Martin Kettle, “What Boris Johnson said about Brexit – and what he really meant,” The Guardian (27 June 2016).

Loiuse Gray, “EU investigates as Boris Johnson accused of cheating on pollution during Olympics,” The Telegraph (25 March 2013).

Adam Vaughan and Esther Addley, “Boris Johnson ‘held back’ negative findings of air pollution report,” The Guardian (17 May 2016).



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