European Court verdict forces UK Government action against air pollution

Today (19 November), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled against the UK Government over its failures to comply with EU air pollution legal limits, following a case brought by environmental NGO ClientEarth.

The European Commission launched legal proceedings against the UK for breach of nitrogen dioxide limits in February 2014.

In July, newly published Government figures showed that air pollution levels in London, Birmingham, and Leeds will continue to exceed European limits until at least 2030.

Last week, in an exchange of letters with the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) of MPs, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said he now accepts scientific evidence from Britain’s leading air research group that Oxford Street has some of the world’s highest recorded levels of nitrogen dioxide, the majority of which comes from diesel fumes.

Alan Andrews, the ClientEarth lawyer leading the case, said: “Every EU citizen has the right to breathe clean air. When our governments fail to protect us from pollution, we have the right to go to court to demand action. The longer our governments are allowed to dither and delay, the more people will die or be made seriously ill.”

ECJ has ruled that Member States must use all measures available to meet air pollution targets within an agreed date, regardless of economic or other considerations.

It is hoped that the ruling will force the Government to take action against the levels of air pollution in the UK.

Urgent action

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley MP welcomed the verdict.

She said: “Parliament’s green watchdog has been warning the Government for the last four years that it must tackle the public health crisis being caused by heavy traffic in our towns and cities.

“Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people living or working near busy roads, however, Minister’s have complacently carried on with business as usual and put off serious efforts to deal with the problem for another decade.”

“It is not acceptable for Ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breathe clean air. Children’s development and people’s lives are at risk right now; we need urgent action to get the most polluting vehicles off our streets and get more people walking, cycling and taking public transport.

“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.”

Damning indictment

Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle MP described the judgment as a ‘damning indictment of the Tory-led Government’s failure to tackle air pollution.’

She said: “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 Government should now back Labour’s plans to deliver a national framework for low emission zones to enable local authorities to encourage cleaner, greener, less polluting vehicles to tackle this problem.”

Tough measures

Friends of the Earth Campaigner Jenny Bates said: “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. The young, elderly and those with existing health problems are especially at risk.

“Action on road traffic, the main cause of air pollution, is essential to end this health scandal – far more must be done to clean up our vehicles and cut traffic levels.

“Investment in alternatives to car travel are also needed, such as cheap and efficient public transport and making it safer and easier for people to get around on their bikes. UK air quality is a national disgrace – tough measures are long overdue.”

Lois Vallely

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie