Air pollution puts UK in the dock and Europe in the red


The UK will face a Supreme Court challenge for breaching the EU’s air quality directive today (7 March), on the same day that a new report estimates the annual health bill from Europe’s coal plant pollution at €43 billion.

The UK court action is focused on roadside measurements of nitrogen dioxide from diesel fumes in 16 British cities and regions in 2010. These were up to four times over the legal limit in choked London thoroughfares like Lambeth Road in Brixton and Putney High street in Wandsworth. 

The Supreme Court judges are expected to rule on the issue in a few weeks’ time and Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth, the green NGO bringing the case, told EURACTIV that the stakes were sky high.

“In purely air quality terms it’s the health of a large proportion of the UK’s urban population,” Andrews said, noting that deaths from air pollution in the UK were running at 29,000 a year, according to a government committee.

“But the implications are wider," he went on. "This [action] also relates to the enforceability of EU environmental law. If the court rules that enforcement is only a matter for the Commission, it would be nothing short of a disaster.”

In May, a Court of Appeal in London upheld a previous ruling that the air quality directive fell under the EU’s purview, even though the UK had broken the law.

However, a letter from the European Commission’s compliance unit supports ClientEarth’s stance that air quality falls under the UK’s jurisdiction.

According to article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, “national courts are the key authority in member states tasked with the interpretation and implantation of EU law,” the letter says.

It also flags the EU’s intent to take action, if the London courts do not.

Article 23

“The Commission would have some considerable concerns if Article 23 of the directive were seen to be a way of allowing member states to circumvent the requirements of… the directive,” the letter states.

The UK has previously signalled that it will postpone the EU's 2010 deadline for meeting air quality standards until between 2020 and 2025 under the directive’s Article 23. This says that member states exceeding pollution limits should set out remedial measures “as soon as possible”.

Having already extended the deadline until 1 January 2015 though, the EU is not minded to allow further slippage, not least because several other EU states are also in breach of the directive.  

“The Commission has enforcement powers as well and they are waiting in the wings, keeping a watchful eye on what happens in London,” Andrews said.

Client Earth supports a national system of low emissions zones which, it says, the UK government formally backs but takes no meaningful action to implement.

Costs of coal

Concerns about the financial cost of air pollution were also underlined this morning by the launch of a new report by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), which estimates the health costs of coal-fired power plant pollution at €42.8 billion a year.

"The unpaid health bill: How coal power plants make us sick" is the first health-related cost calculation of coal plant emissions of particulates, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and the secondary fine particulates formed when these last two interact in the atmosphere.

Across the EU, it finds that coal combustion is annually responsible for 18,200 premature deaths, 8,500 new cases of chronic bronchitis and over 4 million lost working days.

Coal combustion is also associated with other chronic respiratory conditions including emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma.

“The findings are particularly worrying given that the use of coal is now rising after years of decline,” Genon Jensen, HEAL’s director said.

Cheap and highly abundant

Coal, which is cheap and highly abundant, is likely to rival oil as the world’s biggest source of energy within four years, according to the International Energy Agency.  

“The startlingly high costs to human health should trigger a major rethink on EU energy policy,” Jensen said.

The HEAL report came to its conclusions after applying an ‘impact pathway’ approach, that has been used by the EU for assessing air quality regulation since the mid-1990s.

This involves quantifying particulate emissions using the European Environment Agency’s data from 2009, assessing human exposure to the various pollutants, applying ‘response functions’ to quantify health effects, and valuations to cost them. Data for the latter two categories comes from the EU’s Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) program.  

Studies say that air pollution from all sources is responsible for 492,000 deaths in Europe every year, the equivalent of an average reduction in life expectancy of 8.6 months.

The European Commission has taken action against some 20 countries – including the UK - for failing to improve air quality, though some organisations argue that the law needs more teeth to punish states for inaction. The EU executive is expected to revamp its 2008 air quality standards no later than 2013.

Levels of some noxious pollutants are on the rise after a decade of declines, and a report by the European Environment Agency shows that more than 95% of city residents in the European Union regularly breathe ozone levels that exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels.

  • Early 2013: Revised directive to European Parliament for consideration
  • Spring 2013: Ruling from UK Supreme Court judges expected
  • 2013: 'Year of Air' as declared by Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik


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