29 Apr 2015

Air pollution: court demands immediate government action

The supreme court orders the government to prepare new plans to improve air quality within three months, whoever is in power. The UK has exceeded European air pollution limits every year since 2010.

Announcing the court’s decision, Lord Carnwarth said: “The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.”

We have a right to breathe clean air and today the Supreme Court has upheld that right Alan Andrews, ClientEarth

Environmental campaigners ClientEarth, which brought the action against the government, welcomed the judgement, saying in a statement: “The ruling will save thousands of lives a year by forcing the Government to urgently clean up pollution from diesel vehicles, the main source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide found in many of the UK’s towns and cities.”

“Before next week’s election all political parties need to make a clear commitment to policies which will deliver clean air and protect our health.”

Under the plans issued by environment department Defra in 2011, the UK would not have got levels of nitrogen dioxide down to the limits set by the EU ambient Air Quality Directive until as late as 2030 in several regions including London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire. This would be 20 years after the EU deadline of January 2010.”

Missed deadlines

The direction to produce a new plan was made mandatory by the supreme court because Defra had argued that it would be unable to produce a new plan by the end of 2015 due to the restrictions on working on government policy matters during a general election period.

Dr Gary Fuller, senior lecturer in air quality measurement at King’s College London told Channel 4 News: “one lesson from the past ten years is that new plans need to be underpinned by firm evidence and feedbacks are needed to ensure that these new plans remain on target.”

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is mainly produced by emissions from diesel vehicles, and is linked to a range of respiratory illnesses.

A Defra spokesperson said that air quality had “improved significantly in recent years” and added: “meeting NO2 limits is a common challeng across Europe, with 17 member states exceeding limits”.

Early deaths

A 2010 report by the committee on the medical effects of air pollution (COMEAP), found that in 2008 air pollution caused the equivalent of 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. According to ClientEarth, this is more than the number caused by alcohol and obesity combined.

COMEAP Chairman Professor Frank Kelly told Channel 4 News that “the evidence associating NO2 with health effects has strengthened substantially in recent years”.

ClientEarth Lawyer Alan Andrews said: “Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in this country every year.

“We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the Supreme Court has upheld that right.”

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, welcomed the prospect of a new action plan, saying “exposure to air pollution affects the health of everyone, especially children, and those living with pre-existing lung conditions.”