Defra faces further legal action over air pollution

18th December 2015


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Angela Keenan

New government plans to reduce air pollution in cities do not go far enough, according to lawyers at ClientEarth, who have threatened further legal action in the new year.

The environment department (Defra) was ordered by the Supreme Court in April to come up with proposals to deal with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution by the end of the year after a successful case by Client Earth.

Defra yesterday confirmed plans to create clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020. The zones will introduce charges for buses, taxis, coaches and lorries that do not meet minimum standards.

Birmingham and Leeds will also discourage the most polluting diesel vans from entering city centres and implement measures such as park and ride schemes, signage, changes in road layouts and infrastructure for alternative fuels to help improve air quality, Defra said.

Private passenger vehicles will not have to pay, and the zones will be located in "a small number of air quality hotspots," Defra said.

Local authorities will have to carry out feasibility studies, which will be paid for by the government, before consulting on the details of the zones, including the charges. The charges should be designed to reduce pollution, not to raise additional revenue beyond recovering the cost of the scheme, Defra stressed.

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said: "Our clean air zones are targeted on the largest vehicles, while not affecting car owners and minimising the impact on business.

"We want to ensure people can continue to drive into city centres and by targeting action at the most polluting coaches, taxis, buses and lorries we will encourage the use of cleaner vehicles."

However, Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said: "In April, the Supreme Court ordered the government to come up with a plan to achieve legal pollution limits as soon as possible. The government's latest plan for clean air zones doesn't tackle pollution from passenger cars - one of the biggest sources of pollution, and ignores the problem in dozens of other cities where people are breathing illegal levels of pollution."

He said a team of lawyers would study Defra's plans in more detail, but warned: "If on further examination we are not fully satisfied, and we believe that thousands more lives will be put at risk, then we will take the government back to court in the new year."

Defra also published its latest statistics on air pollutants in the UK. Emissions of sulphur dioxide dropped 20.3% between 2013 and 2014, while nitrogen oxides fell by 8.4%. Emissions of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and non-methane volatile organic compounds declined by 2%, 3.1% and 0.4% respectively over the same period.

Emissions from ammonia increased by 3.3%, however. This was mainly due to agriculture, which was responsible for 83.3% of ammonia emissions in 2014, Defra said. Increases in both the size of dairy herds and the use of nitrogen in fertiliser were behind the rise, according to the department.

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