EU court rules UK government must clean up dangerous air pollution
UK government must urgently improve air quality in British cities following a landmark case that could see more vehicles restricted from city centres
Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
By: John Vidal
John Vidal is the Guardian’s environment editor. He joined the paper in 1995 after working for Agence France Presse, North Wales Newspapers and the Cumberland News. He is the author of McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial (1998) and has contributed chapters to books on topics such as the Gulf war, new Europe and development
The government will be forced to urgently clean up illegal air pollution in British cities following a ruling on Wednesday in the European court of justice. It is likely to see many diesel cars and heavy goods vehicles restricted from city centres within a few years.
The landmark case, brought by a small environmental group through the UK courts, will allow people to sue the government for breaching EU pollution laws and will force ministers to prepare plans for many cities to improve air quality.
Europe’s highest court firmly rejected Britain’s long-standing approach to complying with EU air pollution laws which has been to appeal to Europe for time extensions.
The government has admitted that under its current plans, London, Leeds and Birmingham will not meet legal limits for the toxic nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2) until after 2030. This is 20 years after the original deadline set by Europe. Other cities, including Manchester and Glasgow , have target dates of 2025.
Instead, national courts in Europe will now be able to order governments to produce plans which achieve NO2 limits in a period of time as “short as possible”. The UK Supreme court is expected to interpret what the time frame should be next year.
“Thousands of people die because of air pollution in Britain every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the government to finally take this issue seriously. They will now have to come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes,” said Alan Andrews, lawyer with Client Earth which brought the case.
“This sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe,” he said.
Cities across Europe may have little choice now but to introduce “ultra low emission zones” such as the one planned for London in 2020, said Simon Birkett, director of Clean AirLondon. “Diesel exhaust must be banned from the most polluted places just as coal was 60 years ago.”
Maria Eagle MP, the shadow environment secretary, said: “This European Court of Justice judgement is a damning indictment of the government’s total failure to tackle the UK’s air pollution. Air pollution is a serious public health issue facing our towns and cities, tens of thousands of lives are lost each year and yet David Cameron’s government has done nothing to solve the problem. The European Court of Justice has now demanded that the UK take urgent action to address dangerous levels of air pollution”.
The UK government, which cannot appeal against the European judgment, responded by saying: “Roadside concentrations of NO2 levels have fallen 15% since 2010. We have built on this by committing £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, green transport initiatives and supporting local authorities to take action.
“We are revising our plans to reflect recent action so we can be compliant as soon as possible. This is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits. This judgment confirms where limit values are exceeded, plans must be developed which ensure compliance in the shortest possible time,” said a Defra spokeswoman.
Joan Walley, chair of the Environmental audit committee of MPs which quizzed London mayor Boris Johnson on air pollution in September, said: “Today’s ruling from the European court is a welcome intervention, because it will force the government to prioritise the issue of air quality in all decisions on transport policy and infrastructure.”
Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder said: “Today’s ruling shows we need a radical new approach to tackling air pollution in Europe. On their own, local authorities will always find it difficult to comply with these limits as air pollution moves around Europe and does not respect national or regional boundaries.”
Friends of the Earth called on government to roll out low-emission and congestion charging zones, scrap road-building plans, and make it easier for people to cycle and walk.
“UK air quality is a national disgrace – tough measures are long overdue. This ruling should force the government to take the urgent steps needed to clean up Britain’s filthy air, and help prevent many of the tens of thousands of premature deaths every year caused by air pollution,” said a spokeswoman.
The case was referred to European courts after the UK Supreme court ruled earlier this year that the government was failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution. It followed evidence that showed that NO2 pollution legal limits were exceeded in 40 of the the UK’s 43 urban zones in 2010.
Britain submitted plans to the European Commission to postpone the deadline for 24 of the zones but it did not request time extensions for 16.
Separately, the European environment agency said on Wednesday that almost all European city dwellers are exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“For some pollutants, more than 95 % of the urban population is exposed to unsafe levels. Most … have declined slightly over the last decade but NO2 has not fallen as fast as expected. This is partly because vehicles are an important source of NO2, and emission standards have not always led to the anticipated reductions,” it said in its annual air quality report.
Another reason to preserve our metropolitan Green Belts?
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