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UK and EU Air Quality Policy Context 

EU Level

Action to manage and improve air quality is largely driven by European (EU) legislation.  The 2008 ambient air quality directive (2008/50/EC) sets legally binding limits for concentrations in outdoor air of major air pollutants that impact public health such as particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).  As well as having direct effects, these pollutants can combine in the atmosphere to form ozone, a harmful air pollutant (and potent greenhouse gas) which can be transported great distances by weather systems.

The 2008 directive replaced nearly all the previous EU air quality legislation and was made law in England through the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010, which also incorporates the 4th air quality daughter directive (2004/107/EC) that sets targets for levels in outdoor air of certain toxic heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  Equivalent regulations exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Separate legislation exists for emissions of air pollutants with the main legislation being the UNECE Gothenburg Protocol which sets national emission limits (ceilings) for SO2, NOX, NH3 and volatile organic compounds for countries to meet from 2010 onwards.  Similar ceilings have since been set in European law under the 2001 National Emission Ceilings Directive (2001/81/EC), which was subsequently made into UK law as the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2002. 

The European Commission is required to review the directive in 2013 and it is expected that they will initiate work with stakeholders and Member States later in 2011.  The review is expected to look at strengthening provisions for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and consolidate the 4th Air Quality Daughter Directive.

UK Level: National and Local Authorities

In the UK, responsibility for meeting air quality limit values is devolved to the national administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for meeting the limit values in England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) co-ordinates assessment and air quality plans for the UK as a whole.

The UK Government and the devolved administrations are required under the Environment Act 1995 to produce a national air quality strategy.  This was last reviewed and published in 2007.  The strategy sets out the UK’s air quality objectives and recognises that action at national, regional and local level may be needed, depending on the scale and nature of the air quality problem.

Part IV of the Environment Act 1995 and Part II of the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 requires local authorities in the UK to review air quality in their area and designate air quality management areas if improvements are necessary. Where an air quality management area is designated, local authorities are also required to work towards the Strategy’s objectives prescribed in regulations for that purpose. An air quality action plan describing the pollution reduction measures must then be put in place. These plans contribute to the achievement of air quality limit values at local level.

Page last modified: 14 February 2011