Government loses landmark air pollution case at European Court of Justice

Government obliged to prepare new air quality plans as soon as possible

Jamie Merrill
Wednesday 19 November 2014 17:44 GMT
Skyscrapers of the Canary Wharf business district in London shrouded in smog
Skyscrapers of the Canary Wharf business district in London shrouded in smog

The Government will be forced to urgently clean up illegal air pollution in British cities, after a ruling at the European Court of Justice.

Following the case, brought by environmental group Client Earth, individuals will now be able sue the Government for breaching EU pollution laws, while ministers will be forced to prepare and implement plans to improve air quality “as soon as possible”.

In a slap-down for the Government, the court overwhelmingly dismissed a long-stated policy of seeking to comply with EU air pollution laws by simply appealing to Europe for more time.

Alan Andrews, Client Earth's lawyer, said: “Thousands of people die because of air pollution every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the government to finally take this issue seriously. They will now have to come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes”.

In July the Government admitted that several British cities were set to meet toxic nitrogen dioxide gas limits within by 2010, at the same time in emerged NO2 legal limits were exceeded in 40 of the UK’s 43 urban zones in 2010.

Air quality campaigner Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said “This is a massive win for Client Earth on all counts in a landmark environmental case that could be the most important in a generation."

A cyclist wears a face mask to avoid inhaling pollution, in London
A cyclist wears a face mask to avoid inhaling pollution, in London (Getty)

He added: “This judgement means early next year the Supreme Court must take any necessary measure to require Defra to produce a meaningful new air quality plan that ensures the excedance period for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limit values beyond 1 January 2010 is ‘as short as possible’. The judgement also makes clear that these limit values are absolute ‘obligations’."

Campaigners say the ruling could see many diesel cars and commercial vehicles banned from city centres to cut pollution. These are the biggest producers of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas linked with heart attacks and asthma. A clampdown could lead to policies like the London Mayor's plans for an “ultra-low-emission zone” being adopted across the country.

The focus of campaigners will now shift to the UK Supreme court which is expected to interpret what the time frame should be next year. This should see the UK Supreme Court ordering the government to take action to meet limits in a much shorter timeframe.

In the London Assembly Green Party member Jenny Jones called on Mayor Boris Johnson to “urgently review” his air pollution polices in light of the ruling.

She said: “This is great news for Londoners’ health. This judgment shatters the Mayor’s complacency on air pollution. The Mayor must urgently rewrite his strategy and reinstate emergency measures to bring pollution down from its dangerous and illegal levels.”

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