The Government faces a Supreme Court action this week demanding that it slash air pollution levels by 2015. Lawyers acting for the environmental charity ClientEarth are making a legal challenge to force the coalition to cut levels of lethal nitrogen dioxide (NO2) to within European Commission limits.
Poor air quality causes the premature deaths of 30,000 people in Britain each year – more than die from alcohol abuse, obesity or in car crashes. London has the dirtiest air of any European capital, with NO2 levels often double the European limit.
Currently 28 zones in Britain will fail to meet legally binding EU limits for "major air pollutants" such as NO2 levels by a 2015 deadline. Instead of trying to bring emissions within the limits, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is hoping to negotiate a later deadline.
An earlier attempt to make the Government comply failed last year when an application for a judicial review of Defra's inaction was rejected.
The Government said at the time that the issue should be settled by the European Commission rather than the UK courts. However, in a move that will embarrass ministers, the EU has come out in support of this week's Supreme Court action, saying in a letter it has "considerable concerns" if governments such as Britain's try to circumnavigate their own legal systems.
The letter to ClientEarth from Jean-François Brakeland, the EC's legal chief, says: "The fact that the Commission has powers to bring its own infringement proceedings against member states… should not mean that individuals cannot plead these obligations before a national court."
Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said: "The Government's plan is, in reality, a plan to do absolutely nothing. It is trying to kick this into the long grass,... while lobbying in Europe to weaken the legal standards. But the commission has quite rightly laid this at the doors of the UK courts. National courts have a responsibility to enforce national laws, even when they come from Brussels."
Since EU guidelines on NO2 came into force in 2010, London has exceeded the limit by a factor of two, both in 2010 and 2011. NO2 can cause difficulty breathing – particularly for people with heart or lung problems – and polluted air reduces average life expectancy in Britain by up to eight months. It is the second biggest public health threat after smoking, and costs £19bn a year.
Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King's College London, said: "It's important to meet those limit values because all the medical evidence suggests that where the pollution is higher, the health statistics are worse. There'll be more heart disease, more respiratory problems and more people dying earlier."
James Thomlinson, 27, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and works in central London for a digital marketing business. "When I'm walking in London my breathing gets much tighter," he said. "I get wheezy and end up coughing. When I'm somewhere unpolluted, I hardly cough at all. If I want to live longer, I'll need to move."
Experts met yesterday to discuss London's poor air quality before the Olympics. If the weather warms up, it could cause respiratory problems for athletes.
Introducing more low-emission zones, which exclude heavily polluting diesel-engined vehicles, could help Britain hit the target. But currently there is only one, London's, compared with 54 in Germany.
A Defra spokeswoman said: "A significant part of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants, and air quality has improved considerably in recent decades.
"Our air-quality plans for nitrogen dioxide set out all the important work being done to meet EU standards in the shortest possible time."