UK brought to court on bad air quality

Clear message from the UK to the European Commission. Photo: Omar Parada / / CC BY-NC-ND

New figures from the UK government show air quality in some of the country’s biggest cities will not meet European Union pollution limits until after 2030, twenty years after the original deadline.

Under the EU’s air quality legislation, member states were supposed to comply with limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2010, but could extend that to 2015 if they delivered plans that specified how these limits were to be achieved by that later date.

Until this summer, the UK government has maintained it would meet NO2 limits by 2025 in London and by 2020 in 15 other zones, i.e. long after the legal deadline.

But on 10 July, at a European Court of Justice (ECJ) hearing, the UK government revealed that it will not meet the NO2 limits until after 2030 in the Greater London urban area, West Midlands urban area and West Yorkshire urban area. This is 20 years after the original legal deadline and five years later than previously admitted.

According to ClientEarth, this information had previously been disclosed by the UK in legally privileged correspondence responding to a separate legal action brought by the European Commission in February this year.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth, which has brought a case against the UK for the air quality breach that was heard by the ECJ, said: “It’s bad enough that the government has no intention of complying with these limits in the foreseeable future. It’s even worse that they’re trying to hide behind legal procedural rules to keep this quiet. We have a right to breathe clean air and the right to know when the government is failing to protect us. Another five years of delay means thousands more people will die or be made seriously ill. The UK needs to act now to get deadly diesel vehicles out of our towns and cities.”

Lawyers representing the European Commission told the ECJ that the case was “a matter of life and death” and “perhaps the longest-running infringement of EU law in history”.

Last year, the UK Supreme Court declared that the UK government was breaching its legal duty to achieve limits for nitrogen dioxide. It then asked the ECJ to rule on what remedial action it can compel the government to take. The ECJ’s judgment is expected before the end of 2014. It will be binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 EU member states. The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court in early 2015 for a final ruling.

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “This case is about the right to breathe clean air and could have a huge impact far beyond the UK’s borders. It could force governments across the EU to take action.”

Also in July, air pollution experts at King’s College in London said that NO2 levels in London’s Oxford Street were among the worst in the world. Monitoring data showed that concentrations of NO2 reached an average of 135 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) of air, over three times the EU’s limit of 40 µg/m3. This figure is a 24-hour average that was reached by including night times when traffic was lower, meaning that shoppers, workers and tourists are facing much higher levels of NO2 during the day.

In March this year, concentrations as high as 463 µg/m3 were recorded during a peak episode. The high NO2 levels at Oxford Street are primarily due to the intense congestion of diesel-powered buses and taxis on the high street.

Exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles in road traffic are a main source of NO2, and UK tax policies have encouraged the uptake of diesel cars. From 2000 to 2010 the share of diesel-powered cars increased from 14 per cent to almost 50 per cent of new cars sold in the country.

Client Earth argues that the latest scientific evidence shows NO2 to have similar health effects to particulate matter (PM2.5), which has been estimated to cause around 29,000 premature deaths in Britain each year.

Christer Ågren

Source: ClientEarth press release, 10 July 2014. 

UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) air quality information

In this issue