UK has breached EU air rules, admits Defra

16th December 2011

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  • EU ,
  • Air ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management



Lawyers acting for the environment department have confirmed for the first time that the UK is breach of its legal obligations to lower air pollution levels

In a high court case brought against the government by environmental activist group ClientEarth, representatives for Defra acknowledged the UK was unable to meet the requirements of EU Directive on air quality (2008/50/EC), which sets limits on the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) allowed in the air from 1 January 2010.

Under the Directive, member states can apply for an extension giving them until 2015 to lower pollution levels. However, Defra’s plans to cut NO2 reveal that it does not expect pollution levels to be cut in line with the Directive before 2020 in 17 of the 43 cities and regions affected.

ClientEarth applied to the high court challenging the legality of Defra’s plans and requesting that the government be forced to declare it was in breach of EU legislation.

Following the admission from Defra’s lawyers, Justice Mitting refused to order the government to make a formal declaration saying it would serve no purpose. He also concluded that, while the UK was clearly in breach of the Directive, it was up to the European Commission, not a UK court, to take legal action.

Despite failing to win its case, ClientEarth hailed the hearing as a victory.

“We’re extremely pleased that our case has forced the government to admit that they are failing in their legal duty to protect the British people from the harmful effects of air pollution,” said James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO.

“We had hoped that the issue would be resolved in the UK courts, but following Justice Mitting’s decision we expect the European Commission will launch proceedings against the UK.”

Simon Birkett, founder and director of the Clean Air in London campaign, reacted to the case by calling on European regulators to take action.

"We urge the commission to waste no time in acting on the UK's formal admission and launch infraction action before the Olympic Games," he said.

According to Defra’s plans central London will not meet the NO2 limit until 2025, while cities including Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham should meet the targets in 2020.

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