ClientEarth wins air pollution case against UK Government in High Court

Environmental law firm ClientEarth has today (2 November) won its High Court case against the UK Government over the failure of ministers to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country.

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In a damning indictment of Defra’s “woeful approach” to reduce air pollution levels – which have consistantly broken EU legal limits since 2010 – Mr Justice Garnham agreed with ClientEarth that policymakers had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible”.

The judge, who listened to two days of argument at the High Court last month, ruled that the Government’s 2015 Air Quality Plan failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling or relevant EU Directives and said that it had erred in law by fixing compliance dates based on over optimistic modelling of pollution levels. 

The Government can now appeal against this decision, but if the verdict is not overturned, ministers will have to come up with a new, more ambitious plan to tackle air quality, which currently causes tens of thousands of early deaths in the UK and as much as £27.5bn in costs every year.

‘Watching and waiting’

Commenting on this morning’s decision, ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “I am pleased that the judge agrees with us that the Government could and should be doing more to deal with air pollution and protecting people’s health. That’s why we went to court.

“The time for legal action is over. This is an urgent public health crisis which the Prime Minister must take personal control. I challenge Theresa May to take immediate action now to deal with illegal levels of pollution and prevent tens of thousands of additional early deaths in the UK. The High Court has ruled that more urgent action must be taken. Britain is watching and waiting, Prime Minister.”

In his ruling, the judge questioned Defra’s five-year modelling, claiming it was “inconsistent” with taking measures to improve pollution “as soon as possible.” Defra’s planned 2020 air quality compliance for some cities – and 2025 for London – had been chosen because that was the date when ministers thought they’d face European Commission fines, not which they considered “as soon as possible”, according to the ruling.

During evidence last month, the court heard that the Treasury had blocked plans to bring UK air pollution within legal limits as part of an “entire approach driven by cost”, and that Defra’s original plans for a more extensive network of Clean Air Zones in more than a dozen UK cities had been watered down, on cost grounds, to five in addition to London. 

Policing cars

The decision has also been welcomed by Greenpeace, which today launched a radical plan to bring emissions down to legal levels in London called for cross-party support to solve the health crisis caused by air pollution in the UK.

Greenpeace air pollution campaigner Barbara Stoll said: “This judgement matters to every person breathing in the UK but it can only be called a victory when the levels of toxic air actually start to go down. Which means the Government needs to properly police the car industry who are still permitted to produce cars that emit up to 14 times over the legal limit.

“Getting to grips with this scourge means action locally as well as nationally, and the Government needs to provide adequate resource to enable cities to phase out diesel vehicles from our roads, and help people make the switch to cleaner alternatives.”

Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates added: “Today’s court win is fantastic news for our health, but campaigners shouldn’t have to judicially review the Government just to make sure we can all breathe clean air. Air pollution is an invisible killer, leading to 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK.

“The good news is that the government will now have to put in place plans for more Clean Air Zones across the country to deal with our illegally dirty air. The Government was relying on over-optimistic assumptions of how much pollution vehicles actually produce on the road, as opposed to in the lab. We know road traffic is the biggest problem for air pollution in the UK and diesel is the worst of all. To really deal with this air pollution crisis, the Government must now introduce plans to phase out diesel from our roads.”

The ClientEarth case had received the backing of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who recently spoke exclusively to edie about the issue, stressing the importance of the environmental lawyers’ trial in holding the Government to account over poor national air quality levels.

This case marks the second occasion in 18 months that the Government has lost in court over its air pollution policy. In April 2015, ClientEarth won a Supreme Court ruling on the same issue, which ordered ministers to come up with a plan to bring air pollution down within legal limits as soon as possible.

edie podcast: Sadiq Khan and ClientEarth’s air quality crusade

London Mayor Sadiq Khan and ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton were the special guests on a recent edie podcast episode which investigates London’s ongoing air quality crisis, the Government’s green policy priorities, and the role of business in delivering a low-carbon economy.

Luke Nicholls

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