Supreme court rules against UK government in air quality case

29th April 2015

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  • Air ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management


Alan Tinline

The government has been ordered to submit new plans to bring air pollution under control to the European commission by the end of the year in a landmark legal ruling.

The judgment marks the end of a five-year legal battle brought by NGO Client Earth against the environment department (Defra) over its failure to meet limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The air quality Directive set a 1 January 2010 deadline for NO2 levels, but in that year emissions exceeded maximum limits in 40 of the 43 UK zones established to meet the EU legislation.

Defra was granted an extension from the commission for 24 zones, which ended on 1 January 2015. Under the department’s current air quality plan, London, Birmingham and Leeds will breach the NO2 levels set by the directive until beyond 2030.

Client Earth argued that Defra breached article 22 of the directive by failing to apply for an extension on meeting NO2 limits for the other zones.

But the judgment concluded that Defra’s “critical breach” of the directive was failing to meet limits for NO2 by the deadline, rather than whether it had applied for an extension.

It states: “Failure to apply for a postponement, far from strengthening the position of the state, rather reinforces its essential obligation to act urgently.”

It concludes: “The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the commission not later than 31 December 2015.”

The directive outlines the type of measures that governments have to consider. These include creating low-emission zones, and introducing congestion charging and other economic incentives.

Alan Andrews, lawyer for ClientEarth, said: “The next government, regardless of the political party or parties which take power, is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis.

“Before next week’s election all political parties need to make a clear commitment to policies which will deliver clean air and protect our health,” he said.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgment recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible.

“It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits,” she added.

In a statement, Defra claimed that average roadside concentrations of NO2 levels have fallen 15% since 2010. NO2 emissions have more than halved between 1992 and 2012, it added.

In February, the European commission launched a separate legal action against the UK for breaching the directive.

The World Health Organisation yesterday published a report estimating the economic costs associated with premature deaths from air pollution at around £54 billion a year.


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