Updated: EU Court tells UK to clean up toxic air pollution


Court of Justice says UK government must comply with law over NO2 pollution and meet legal limits by 2015

By Jessica Shankleman

19 Nov 2014

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The UK has today come under fresh pressure to ban the most polluting diesel cars, after a European court ruled the government must comply with legal air quality rules by 1 January 2015 at the latest.

The European Court of Justice dismissed arguments by environment department Defra that it would be unable to deliver healthy NO2 levels across the UK’s major towns and cities until “after 2030”, ruling that it must draw up a plan to achieve compliance with EU-wide air quality regulations as soon as possible.

Under the EU’s Air Quality Directive, member states were required to comply with NO2 standards in 2010. However, like many other countries, the UK failed to achieve the target, partly because of the major rise in diesel vehicles on the roads.

In order to avoid potential fines of hundreds and thousands of Euros, countries were able to apply for a five year time extension, if they could draw up a plan showing they would be able to meet the standards by 2015.

The UK government however did not apply, instead arguing that Article 23 of the directive allowed for it to draw up a plan showing how it would comply “as soon as possible”. Defra predicted that London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire would be unable to meet legal limits until after 2030, while a number of other major cities, including Cardiff and Liverpool would need to wait until 2025 to comply with the standard.

The European Courts today ruled against the UK government on both these arguments, confirming that the UK was obliged to apply for an extension as soon as it realised that it would be unable to meet the 2010 deadline.

In addition, judges said the government will have to come up with a plan to meet the legal limits by 2015.

“Where a member state has not complied with the limit values and has not applied for a postponement of the deadline in accordance with the prescribed conditions, it is for the competent national court… to take… any necessary measure, such as an order in the appropriate terms so that the authority establishes the plan required by the directive to ensure, in particular, that the period during which the limit values are exceeded is as short as possible,” the European Court said.

The case will now return to the UK’s Supreme Court for its final decision on how to ensure the UK complies with the EU law.

The decision was welcomed by Alan Andrews of the NGO ClientEarth, which brought the original case against the UK government. He said the ruling also sets a precedent for other member states to comply with healthy air limits as quickly as possible.

“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,” he said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Defra said it was now revising its air quality plans to ensure compliance in the shortest possible time.

“The government is fully committed to ensuring compliance with EU air quality standards and we are revising our plans to reflect recent action so we can be compliant as soon as possible,” she said. “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 – this has always been the Government’s position.”