UK receives final warning from commission on air pollution

15th February 2017

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  • Control ,
  • Prevention & Control ,
  • Environment agencies


Vanessa Picton-Duce

The UK's continued failure to tackle nitrogen dioxide could result in court action, the European Commission warned today.

The commission has issued the UK government with a ‘reasoned opinion’, or formal request to comply with the law. It states that, since 2010, the UK has persistently been in breach of maximum levels for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) set by the Ambient Air Quality Directive in 16 areas, including London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow.

Similar requests have been sent to France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Exposure to high levels of NO2 increases the likelihood of people developing health problems, including coughing, bronchitis and lung infection, especially children with asthma and older people with heart disease.

Governments of the five countries have two months to act, after which the commission could refer the case to the European Court of Justice.

The UK government has already lost two court cases on air pollution bought by lawyers at ClientEarth. In November, the High Court ordered the government to draw up a new air quality plan by July 2017 after ruling that its deadline of September was ‘far too leisurely’.

The government is due to consult on its new plan by 24 April, according to a parliamentary written answer by environment minister Lord Gardiner yesterday.

Campaigners hailed the commission’s action. Louise Duprey, senior policy officer on air pollution at the European Environment Bureau, said: ‘What the European commission is doing is essential. EU air pollution laws are designed to protect our health. There’s no excuse for countries that fail to implement these laws properly.’

A coalition of health, environmental and transport organisations has called on the UK government to introduce national legislation to achieve significant reductions in air pollution. Organisations involved include the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the Campaign for Better Transport, ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth and the British Lung Foundation.

A new clean air act should tackle modern sources of air pollution, including diesel-powered engines, strengthen existing legislation and make the UK a world leader in clean technology, an aim that would also create jobs, the coalition said.

Almost 300 doctors, nurses and other health professionals from campaign group Medact have signed a letter to prime minister Theresa May calling for government action to remove the current fleet of diesel vehicles from the roads as soon as possible.

The letter notes that a diesel phase-out was supported by the government’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, in December. It states that London is particularly badly affected by diesel emissions, with road transport generating 45% of total nitrogen oxide emissions in the capital. But it stresses that national action on diesel vehicles is required.

The letter says: ‘There are now 585 air quality management areas [AQMAs] in the UK – this means that the majority of local authorities now have a statutory duty to take action on illegal levels of air pollution in at least one area. However, the options available to local authorities when creating clean air zones or seeking to tackle AQMAs do not include powers to ban the single biggest source of pollution – diesel vehicles.’

A government-led national diesel reduction initiative would represent ‘a major public health advance’, the letter added.


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