Lawyers for the UK environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, acknowledged the failure to meet the EU Air Quality Directive’s requirements in a complaint brought by the environmental advocacy group ClientEarth.
Alan Andrews, a ClientEarth lawyer in the case, accused the government of breaching the 1 January 2010 deadline for enacting air quality plans for London and 16 other cities. He said the pollution-reduction obligations under EU law would unlikely be met for at least another decade.
However, a High Court judge dismissed the case against the government at a hearing in London on 13 December, saying that it was up to the European Commission - not a national court - to take corrective action.
Although no resounding victory for environmentalists, the case is a potential bellwether for grass-roots conservation groups to challenge national governments that violate their EU obligations - a role played almost exclusively by the Commission itself.
“These cases are very rare and they shouldn’t be,” said Andrews.
“The problem is that governments are happy to willfully ignore these rules,” Andrews told EurActiv. “There is a myopic focus on climate change whilst air quality doesn’t even register.”
UK already under pressure
A spokesman for Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said the EU executive already has already filed infringement proceedings against Britain for violating some air quality provisions and that London was granted an extension to update its pollution statistics.
But worries about air quality have grown in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics that begin in July, with some environmentalists warning of a repeat of the stifling smog that threatened the Beijing Games in 2008.
Those concerns were reinforced in a damning British Parliament Environmental Audit Committee report accusing the government of “putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules”.
Both the parliamentary report and ClientEarth contend that chronic pollution and air quality problems in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and other cities kill upwards of 30,000 people annually.
ClientEarth hailed its case before the High Court for leading the government to publicly admit its failures to comply with European law.
“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,” James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, said in a statement.
The ClientEarth case, filed in July, dealt with Britain’s failure to produce plans that will bring nitrogen dioxide (NO2) within legal limits and to reduce particulate pollution, or PM10.