British judges rule that the UK breached its legal duty to reduce air pollution in British cities, and call for the European Commission to take immediate action to enforce EU law.
Out of all European capitals, London has the highest level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air.
The government has said that another 15 UK zones, including Manchester and Glasgow, will have to wait until 2020 before air pollution levels are at EU-approved levels.
But now five supreme court judges have paved the way for the European Commission to take legal action against the UK for failing to protect its citizens from the harmful effects of air pollution.
An EU directive has put a limit on the amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a colourless, odourless gas produced by burning fuels – in the air, which was supposed to be achieved by 2010. A five year extension could be permitted if a government put in place a plan to deal with high levels of the gas.
This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson – James Thornton, Client Earth
Britain’s highest appeal court said the government had failed to comply with the EU directive and the government could be forced into drastic measures to reduce the effects of air pollution.
Proceedings are now on hold as the case is referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union for guidance. But the judges said: “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”.
Alan Andrews, lawyer for the environmental charity Client Earth, told Channel 4 News that the declaration is “giving the commission the green light to take action straight away”.
The legal challenge was brought by Client Earth in 2011, in an attempt to force the government to come up with an air quality plan to comply with European Union limits.
In 2010, 40 out of Britain’s 43 air quality zones (all major cities) exceeded NO2 limits.
The way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level – Supreme court judges
The government had put in place measures to try to reduce 23 zones by 2015, as instructed by the EU directive. But it said limits on the remaining 16 cities could not be met by 2015, or in the case of London, by 2025.
The government said they were only required to comply with the directive “in the shortest time possible”.
The case went to the highest court in the land, after the High Court and the Court of Appeal refused to take action.
Around 29,000 early deaths a year in Britain are attributed to air pollution, according to one government advisory group. It is also linked to respiratory problems and heart disease.
“This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson (secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs),” said James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth.
“He must now come up with an ambitious plan to protect people from carcinogenic diesel fumes. Until now, his only policy has been lobbying in Europe to try and weaken air pollution laws.”
A spokesman for the European Commission said the body could already take legal action against Britain.
“It has not been done yet because we’re working through a number of countries because it’s easier to bring one horizontal action (against them all),” said spokesman Joe Hennon.