With Olympic athletes facing some of Europe’s worst nitrogen pollution, environmental lawyers are preparing to ask Britain’s highest civil court to force the government to comply with EU air quality standards.

The ClientEarth legal organisation argues that the British government is breaching the 1 January 2010 EU deadline for complying with air quality plans for London and 16 other cities. The group contends that the government is neglecting its EU obligations to reduce emissions that contribute to urban smog and particulate pollution.

“We’ve seen lots of headlines but very little action from the government,” Alan Andrews, a ClientEarth lawyer in the case, told EurActiv in a telephone interview. Air quality, he said “just doesn’t get the attention it should deserve.”

Andrews said ClientEarth would ask the British supreme court as early as today (19 July) to decide whether UK justices have competence to rule in the case, or refer it to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The latest challenge comes one year after ClientEarth first went to court over the British government’s compliance with Article 22 of the Air Quality Directive, which requires countries to file air quality plans to the European Commission.

In earlier court appearances, a High Court judge in London dismissed the environmental lawyers’ case against the government on 13 December 2011, saying that it was up to the European Commission - not a national court - to take corrective action. On 30 May, the court of appeal upheld the earlier ruling.

Although the rulings were a setback for environmentalists, lawyers for the UK environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, did acknowledge the government’s failure to meet the EU Air Quality Directive.

London smog

In a letter to ClientEarth on 29 June, seen by EurActiv, a Commission lawyer said the EU executive was awaiting the outcome of the appeal “to decide how best to proceed with this matter given that it now appears clear that numerous Air Quality Plans, including the plan for London, were not communicated to the Commission.”

The expected appeal follows a recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) showing that many EU countries are failing to meet their obligations to reduce nitrogen oxides and other emissions that cause smog and acid rain, and can aggravate human respiratory problems.

EEA figures show that Britain has the second highest nitrogen oxide emissions in the EU after Germany, with energy production accounting for 58% of the emissions and road transport 34%.

In a study last year, the EEA reported that levels of some noxious pollutants are on the rise after a decade of decline, and that more than 95% of city residents in the EU regularly breathe ozone levels that exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels.

Worries about air quality have grown in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics. The Met Office, Britain's official weather service, will be providing reports on air quality during the Games, while 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 Britons annually.