EC legal action over UK air pollution

The European Commission (EC) has announced that it will be launching legal proceedings against the UK for its persistent failure to tackle air pollution, particularly levels of the toxic gas, nitrogen dioxide (NO2).


The Commission claims that European air pollution limits are still regularly exceeded in 16 different ‘zones’ across the UK. These include: Greater Manchester, Greater London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the East, the South East, the East Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the West Midlands, and the North East. 


Long-term exposure to nitrogen oxides (NOx) is thought to be a key cause of respiratory illnesses and premature deaths in humans, as well as poor health in plants and animals. 


The gases are chiefly emitted through the burning of fossil fuels and diesel exhaust, and contribute to high levels of ground-level ozone. They also work as indirect greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Failure to comply


According to the EU air pollution directive, which came into force in 2008, the UK should have met its air pollution targets by 1 January 2010. 


However, a number of member states failed to comply in time, and some were granted extensions through to 1 January 2015. These were dependent on states outlining exactly how they planned to reduce NO2 levels in the affected zones.


The EC’s complaint is that the UK has failed to produce a viable five-year plan, while the other member states have produced “credible and workable” proposals.


In breach


According to government data presented at the UK Supreme Court, London is now unlikely to comply with the EU standards until 2025, which will be 15 years past the original deadline. 


For the other 15 zones, including Greater Manchester and Merseyside, it is likely to be more like 2020.


For the purposes of air pollution monitoring, the UK is divided into 43 zones. In 2010, levels of NO2 were over the EU limits in 40 of them.


The Government has now been informed that it is in breach of its obligations and it has two months to respond.


EC spokesperson, Joe Hennon, said: "Our priority is to protect public health and the environment. We think that's what the people of the UK would want as well."




Responding to the announcement, Friends of the Earth campaigner, Jenny Bates, called the situation a “national scandal”. 


She said: "The Government, Mayor of London and local authorities must now take tough and rapid measures, such as reducing traffic levels, rather than increasing road-capacity.”


James Thornton, chief executive of environmental campaign group, ClientEarth added: "We have the right to breathe clean air and the Government has a legal duty to protect us from air pollution”.


According to health campaigners, air pollution causes as many as 29,000 early deaths in the UK each year.

Posted under General Interest on 23 February 2014