EU rejects UK bid to extend NO2 deadline

28th June 2012

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The European Commission has refused to allow the UK to postpone meeting its air quality obligations, leaving the government potentially facing legal action

Under the Ambient Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) EU member states have been required to ensure levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) do not exceed specified safe limits since January 2010.

However, the UK has failed to meet the limits in 40 urban and suburban areas, including central Scotland, Belfast, Cardiff and London, and in September last year Defra applied to the commission for permission to push back the deadline.

While the Directive allows countries to postpone meeting the requirements until 2015, Defra’s application confirmed it did not expect to meet the targets until at least 2020 in 16 of the areas, effectively admitting the UK would be in breach of EU legislation for at least a decade.

In April, Defra amended its application asking the commission to only examine its air quality action plans for the 24 sites it believed could lower NO2 levels by 2015. After reviewing the plans, the EU commission has agreed to extending the deadline for just half of the zones affected, arguing that the UK had not shown that the NO2 limits could be met in the other areas by 2015.

The decision means that the UK is now in breach of the Directive in 28 areas, and the commission has initiated the process that will decide whether it will take legal action against the government.

Simon Birkett, founder and director of the Clean Air in London campaign, said: “The commission’s decision shows how ludicrous it was of the government to say it won’t comply with the standards in London until 2025.”

“It is scandalous the UK did not commit to any new measures in any zone in its application to delay compliance with NO2 limit values. We need political leadership; fewer and cleaner (diesel) vehicles; to reduce emissions from buildings; to protect the most vulnerable; and to ensure an air quality legacy from the Olympics.”

Reacting to the commission’s decision, a Defra spokesperson told the environmentalist: “Our air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and is now generally very good.

“There are some limited areas where air pollution remains an issue but that’s being dealt with by the air quality plans, which set out all the important work being done at national, regional and local levels to make sure we meet EU limits as soon as we can.”

However, in February, Defra responded to a report on air quality from the parliamentary environmental audit, arguing that the costs of meeting the NO2 targets could outweigh the potential benefits.


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