Nitrogen dioxide levels in parts of London, Birmingham and Leeds will not meet EU limits until after 2030, Defra has conceded.
The environment department had previously maintained that the limits would be met by 2025 in London and by 2020 in 15 other air quality zones.
Defra’s concession came as the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) began hearing evidence against the UK government for breaching its legal duty to achieve EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, which is produced mainly by diesel vehicles. Last year, the UK Supreme court ruled that the government was in breach of the duty and referred the case, brought by lawyer activist group Client Earth, to the CJEU.
The 2030 date is 20 years after the EU Directive on air quality set limits for nitrogen dioxide and led lawyers for the European commission to describe the UK’s non-compliance as “perhaps the longest running infringement of EU law in history”.
When the EU restrictions came into effect on 1 January 2010, levels of nitrogen dioxide in 40 of the 43 air quality zones in the UK were exceeding the annual 40 μg/m3 threshold. Several countries, including the UK, were granted five-year extensions, but Defra has acknowledged that 16 areas would not meet the revised 2015 deadline.
Client Earth expects the CJEU’s judgment by the end of 2014, and says it will be binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 EU member states. The case will return to the UK Supreme court in early 2015 for a final ruling.
The European commission announced in February that it had launched its own proceedings against the UK for failing to deal with air pollution.
In its 2012 response to a report on air quality by the House of Commons’ environmental audit committee, Defra said that the costs of complying with EU air quality targets may outweigh the potential benefits.