Britain must do more to tackle air quality

Outside the Supreme Court. [Mark Briggs]

The UK Supreme Court has ordered the government to deliver plans to tackle air pollution by the end of the year, in a unanimous decision delivered Wednesday (29 April).

The Air Quality Directive set limits on the concentration of nitrogen dioxide from January 2010. Extensions of up to five years were granted following an application and the submission of an air quality plan to get pollution down to legal limits.

The UK applied for extensions in 24 zone, but didn’t in 16 others. Air quality plans were submitted, but in some cases these would not have resulted in compliance until after 2030.

The government previously argued that the drawing up of an air quality plan was enough to meet its obligations under the Clean Air Directive. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled against the government in November 2014. The directive required enforcement by domestic courts.

>>Read: German cities show excessive air pollution levels

Nitrogen Oxide can cause breathing difficulties, especially for people with preexisting conditions such as asthma. The pollutant is commonly expelled from diesel vehicles which receive favourable tax rates due to their low carbon dioxide levels.

Following Wednesday’s ruling by the UK Supreme Court, the government must now submit new plans to reduce air pollution by the end of this year.

The ruling is binding on whichever government is formed after the general election on 7 May.

ClientEarth, who fought the case, called the ruling “historic” and saying it would save thousands of lives a year.

“This ruling will benefit everyone,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews. “The next government…is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis.”

“We’re really pleased with today’s ruling. This has gone on for long enough,” said Anna Heslop from ClientEarth “A network of national low emissions zones would be a great start.”

>>Read: Draft pollution law seeks to tackle lethal European air

Responding to the court’s decision, a spokeswoman from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who are responsible for air quality, said, “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible.

“It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.”

The department has been run for the last five years by the Conservatives,.

Energy & Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, of coalition partners the Liberal Democrats said, “Air pollution is a silent killer and this ruling is a timely reminder that it has to be taken more seriously. More has to be done in London, and across many other areas of the UK where there are now acute problems.”

A poll conducted by YouGov for the Evening Standard showed 69% of the public didn’t think air pollution was being adequately tackled by the government.

On Tuesday, a report by the World Health Organisation estimated air pollution cost European economies $16 trillion a year in disease and premature death.

An estimated 90% of EU citizens are exposed to some of the most harmful atmospheric pollutants at levels judged dangerous by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The 2008 Air Quality Directive aims to streamline and reinforce European legislation on pollution and air standards. It is currently under examination.

The directive obliges the member states to bring about a 20% reduction in their citizens' exposure to fine and medium-sized particles by 2020, compared to 2010 levels.

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