The European Commission (EC) Directive, approved yesterday (8 December), sets ceilings for each country of the maximum emissions allowed per year for five harmful pollutants including oxides of nitrogen (NOx), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ammonia.

The limits – which enter into force on 31 December 2016 – will apply each year from 2020 to 2029, with new stricter reductions agreed from 2030. The EC anticipates that the Directive will reduce the number of premature deaths by an estimated 50% in 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

President of the European Council and Slovak Environment Minister László Sólymos said: “These new rules will save lives and improve the health of EU citizens. Their implementation will require a significant commitment from the member states, but we are ready for this challenge. The protection of the health and the environment are well worth the efforts which will be needed.”

‘Awkward questions’

Britain has signed up to the new Directive, despite its intentions to leave the EU before the law is enacted. This has been met with scepticism among green campaigners concerned about how the UK Government will enforce the legislation post-Brexit.

Only yesterday, more than a dozen environmental organisations came together to form the Greener UK coalition with the primary intention of ensuring that the UK uses the “pivotal moment” presented by the Brexit negotiations to restore and enhance the country’s natural environment.

The alliance of green groups includes environmental firm ClientEarth, which states that the Government’s poor record on sticking to pollution laws raises serious doubts about whether it will meet these new targets.

ClientEarth’s director of programmes Karla Hill, a member of the Greener UK board, said: “The Government needs to commit to transposing this Directive into UK legislation as soon as possible, and has to answer some awkward questions about who will hold it to account if it breaks these laws once we have left the EU.”

Legal woes

Yesterday’s announcement arrived on the same day that the EC started legal action against the UK and six other EU states for failing to act against car emissions cheating in the wake of the “dieselgate” scandal. The accused countries, which also include Germany and Spain, have two months to respond, after which the EC could send a “reasoned opinion” before ultimately filing a suit at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg.

The decision only adds to the Government’s legal woes regarding air pollution, after it was last month defeated by ClientEarth in a High Court case over the failure of ministers to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country.

The legal action was directly supported by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who this week stepped up his commitment to tackling the capital’s deadly air pollution levels by doubling the investment in air quality improvements over the next five years.

George Ogleby

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