Campaigners hail air pollution court victory

19th November 2014

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Andreas Dimou

The UK government could finally be forced to act on air pollution after campaigners won a landmark case at the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ) today.

Lawyers at NGO ClientEarth brought the case against Defra over its failure to meet limits for pollutants under the air quality directive by the 1 January 2010 deadline. In that year, limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were exceeded in the UK in 40 of the 43 zones set up to meet the directive.

Defra received an extension from the commission to the original deadline for 24 of the 40 zones. That extension ends on 1 January 2015. Under its current air quality plan, London, Birmingham and Leeds will breach the NO2 levels set by the directive until beyond 2030.

ClientEarth asked the British courts to require the UK government to show how the NO2 limits would be met as soon as possible, but by 1 January 2015 at the latest.

The Supreme Court passed the case to the ECJ, asking it to clarify if a member state was obliged to apply for a postponement of the deadline if limits for pollutants were not met in time.

It also wanted direction on whether the fact that Defra had drawn up an air quality plan was enough to comply with the directive, and if not, what measures the national court should take.

The ECJ has ruled that the UK Supreme Court must require Defra to produce a meaningful plan to ensure that NO2 limits are met as soon as possible, and that producing a plan is not enough in itself to satisfy the directive.

Postponement of the deadline is only acceptable where “acute compliance problems exist”, the ruling states.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth , commented: “This ruling will force the government to finally take this issue seriously and come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes.”

Simon Birkett, director of campaign group Clean Air in London, hailed the ruling as “a landmark environmental case that could be the most important in a generation..

“Clean Air in London urges the government and the London mayor to ban diesel exhaust from the most-polluted places as coal was banned successfully 60 years ago. This is the most important action needed to protect public health and comply with NO2 limit values,” he said.

The case will now return to the UK Supreme Court early next year for a final ruling.

Campaigners are hoping the government will now be forced to implement measures, such as restricting traffic on certain roads to allow only essential vehicles; bringing forward the London ultra-low emission zone by 2018 rather than the current plan of 2020; investing more in public transport, walking and cycling; and providing the public with better information on air pollution.

The commission could now send the UK a final written warning for breaching NO² limits. This would be the second in a five step process, which could result in unlimited and daily fines, estimated to be £300 million per year per pollutant.

The ECJ ruling was the first on the 2008 air quality directive. Other countries infringing standards on PM10 particulate matter include Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, and Italy; while NO2 standards are not being met in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic and Spain, among others, according to NGO the European Environmental Bureau.

Andrew said: “This sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe. ClientEarth will spearhead these efforts to help people defend their right to clean air in court.”

The ruling comes as the European commission is discussing whether to withdraw the air quality package proposed by the previous commission. This would tighten national targets for air pollutants.

Data published today by the European Environment Agency in its annual air quality monitoring report shows that air pollution remains the main environmental health hazard in Europe, causing an estimated 400,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2011.

The pollutant that increased the most over the last decade was benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), the EEA found. Airborne concentrations of BaP increased by more than a fifth between 2003 and 2012 due to urban use of woodstoves and biomass heating, it said.

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