UK cities will not meet EU pollution targets until 2030, Government admits

The European Court of Justice is to rule before the end of the year on what remedial action the UK can take

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Pollution levels in some of the UK’s biggest cities mean that EU air pollution targets will not be met until at least 2030, according to the government. 

Member states were originally given a 2010 deadline to meet targets on fumes from diesel vehicles, which contain the harmful compound nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and are the biggest cause of poor air quality.

But the European Court of Justice heard that the cities of London, Leeds and Birmingham could still be above these targets by 2030 – five to ten years later than previously admitted.

The evidence was heard as part of a civil case brought by ClientEarth, a group of activist lawyers.

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “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. 

“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.”

The Government had previously said that the lapsed deadlines were privileged information but ClientEarth pointed out that Defra had posted the figures on its website on Wednesday night.


ClientEarth argue that nitrogen dioxide causes 29,000 early deaths annually in the UK, compared to 9,000 premature deaths a year each from obesity and alcohol. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified diesel exhaust fumes as carcinogenic, which leads to an increased risk of lung cancer. 

Last year the UK Supreme Court declared the UK Government is breaching its legal duty to achieve limits for nitrogen dioxide. The case was referred to the European Court of Justice, which was asked to rule on what remedial action the UK can take.

Video: 'People are talking about pollution'

A judgement is expected before the end of the year, which will be binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 member states. The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court in early 2015 for a final ruling.

Andrews said: “This case is about the right to breathe clean air and could have a huge impact far beyond the UK’s borders. It could force governments across the EU to take action.”

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.”