UK cities will exceed EU pollution limits until 2030, figures show

Air pollution, level 9. London, April 2014. [David Holt/Flickr]

Air pollution levels in London, Birmingham, and Leeds will exceed European limits until at least 2030, newly-published figures show.

In a case at the European court of justice on Thursday, lawyers for the commission described the UK's failure to act on the breach as "perhaps the longest running infringement of EU law in history."

The UK has exceeded the EU's nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution limit since 2010, leading the European commission and environmental lawyers to launch separate legal actions against the government which faces potential fines of £300m a year for its infraction.

On Wednesday, the government published revised and more accurate projections for NO2 emissions, which show that it expects the Greater London urban area, West Midlands urban area and West Yorkshire urban area will be in breach until "after 2030", 5-10 years later than previously expected.

NO2 is largely caused by diesel vehicles, and can aggravate existing health problems such as asthma. Studies have begun to suggest NO2 could have as great an effect on early deaths as particulate pollution, which have already been linked to higher risks of lung cancer and heart failure. Air pollution causes an estimated 29,000 deaths a year in the UK, according to Public Health England.

Tyneside, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol, all previously expected to be in compliance of NO2 levels by 2015, will now not be compliant until 2025, according to the revised figures, which take into account more accurate "performance of modern diesel vehicles and older petrol cars".

According to Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth which has brought a case against the UK for the breach which was heard by the European Court of Justice, “It’s bad enough that the government has no intention of complying with these limits in the foreseeable future. It’s even worse that they’re trying to hide behind legal procedural rules to keep this quiet. We have a right to breathe clean air and the right to know when the government is failing to protect us.

Andrews added, “Another five years of delay means thousands more people will die or be made seriously ill. The UK needs to act now to get deadly diesel vehicles out of our towns and cities.”

Barry Gardiner, shadow environment minister, said: "Today’s response from the European Court of Justice shows that the government is failing to meet even its own inadequate air pollution targets. Instead of implementing measures to reduce the levels of pollution, the government recently had to scrap its own air quality strategy because it would have made the problem worse, and currently the government have no plan.”

“Now the government’s only focus is covering their back by passing fines for their own failure to reduce air pollution on to local authorities. Without urgent action, children in the UK will be waiting for another 20 years before they can expect any improvement.”

This week, air pollution experts at King's College in London said that NO2 levels in London's Oxford Street were the worst in the world. A verdict on the ClientEarth case is expected from the European Court of Justice towards the end of this year.

A Defra spokesperson said “We are investing heavily in measures to improve air quality and have committed billions to increase uptake of ultra-low-emission vehicles, sustainable travel and green transport initiatives.

“As our understanding of NO2 evolves this must be reflected in our projections which is why we have revised these figures – work is under way to ensure compliance with EU limits in the shortest possible time.”

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ge041075's picture

When the UK leave th EU, they will be able to change the pollution limits. So they will be fine.

A Londoner's picture

This sort of involvement shows the EU at its interfering worst. The air pollution is produced in the UK and the sufferers are British residents; it is a purely UK concern but the EU has become involved.

Obviously there is a public health issue but given that it is a purely British health issue it should be for the UK government to investigate the cost/health benefits ratio and prioritise this issue against other health issues. Unfortunately the Brussels system give undue power to certain NGOs who can lobby without the scrutiny they are exposed to at Westminster.

alanparmenter's picture

I applaud, recommend and am grateful for the original message in this article, written by Adam Vaughan in The Guardian newspaper, which draws together the information on this topic exceptionally well. The smog in London's air is visible, measurable and causes unpleasant symptoms in my own experience. That this effect happens so frequently deserves to become a huge scandal. Even more so if, as it says above, air pollution is the world's largest single health risk, the WHO conclusion given here as background. Nevertheless, on our ground, even without the help of scientists or statisticians, to see this smog on the streets with our eyes, some of us just need to try looking at the smog not through the smog…

A Londoner's picture

I repeat my point. The smog is produced by UK residents and the harm suffered by UK residents. The EU should not be involved.

ge041075's picture

Actually you are wrong. It demonstrates that you don't understand the meaning of a single market. EU pollution limits have to be respected everywhere in the EU to enable fair competition. Indeed taking care of the environnement has a cost. It's unfair that some economic agents avoid this cost because they disregard EU pollution limits. EU has to act because UK's behavior has an impact on the rest of the EU. It's even laid down in the WTO rules. It's a bit like social dumping.