High levels of nitrates in water are a problem because they cause oxygen depletion which is harmful to humans and biodiversity. Nitrates are connected to wider nitrogen pollution because of the nitrogen cycle, including nitrogen oxides and ammonia, powerful airborne air pollutants which when deposited in water and soil can raise acidity levels. Key sources of nitrate pollution are farming (artificial fertilisers and animal waste leaching into water) and domestic and industrial sewage. Farming is the main source of ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions. Regulation of water and air quality is based on EU legislation and mainly devolved.
The UK has high drinking water standards. It is not doing as well on bathing water status, has been criticised by the European Court of Justice on the treatment of sewage and 86% of English rivers have not reached good ecological status. Historic over use of artificial fertiliser has led to nitrate pollution in many of our groundwater sources. On air quality, the UK has seen reductions in overall nitrogen oxide levels, but it has been subject to EU infringement proceedings on nitrogen dioxide levels while ammonia levels have begun to rise, threatening the UK’s ability to meet its obligation under the Gothenburg Protocol to reduce ammonia emissions by 8 per cent by 2020.
Leaving the EU presents the UK with challenges and opportunities. We have warned elsewhere about the dangers of ‘a governance gap, whereby zombie’ EU legislation would be transposed into UK law but remain divorced from EU institutions that monitor, update, administer and ensure compliance. We are particularly concerned that existing standards are not weakened and there appears a danger that this will happen to the EU goal of all water bodies reaching a good status by 2027. The Government have said that they will replace the current Common Agricultural Policy with a new regime based on payments for the delivery of public goods. However, it is important that the polluter pays principle is not undermined and use of public money is effectively scrutinised. We await the Government’s proposals to resolve the issue of water and air quality alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
We believe that leaving the EU offers an opportunity for a joined-up approach, which aligns water, air and soil quality regulations and regulators, goes further than existing standards wherever possible, under a new single powerful independent environmental watchdog filling the gap left by the European Commission, European Environment Agency and European Court of Justice. We hope this is reflected in the Environment Bill to be published before the end of 2018. We also believe that joined-up policies can deliver better environmental outcomes. For example, supporting farmers to invest in infrastructure and processes to reduce artificial fertiliser application, increase better storage and use of animal waste, can simultaneously reduce nitrate and phosphorus leaching and nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions.
Published: 22 November 2018