UK could face court action over air pollution after EU warning: 'We can delay no more'

Proposals made on Tuesday are 'not substantial enough to change the big picture'

Judith Vonberg
Tuesday 30 January 2018 19:04 GMT
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Poor air quality in countries across Europe is believed to cause around 400,000 premature deaths every year
Poor air quality in countries across Europe is believed to cause around 400,000 premature deaths every year (Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski)

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Nine European countries including the UK could face legal action if they fail to make progress on reducing air pollution, the EU’s top environment official has warned.

The intervention came as legal air pollution limits for the whole year were reached within a month in London.

Brixton Road, Lambeth, has seen levels of pollutant nitrogen dioxide exceed average hourly limits 18 times so far this year, the maximum allowed under European Union air quality rules.

Inaction by national governments over the issue prompted the European Commission's environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, to warn of legal action after talks with ministers from nine EU countries including Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy - all of which regularly flout the bloc’s air quality standards.

“Every year, an astonishing number of citizens’ lives are cut short because of air pollution,” Mr Vella said.

“We have known this for decades, and the air quality limit values have been in place for almost as long.

“And yet, still today, in 2018, 400 000 people are still dying prematurely every year because of a massive, widespread failure to address the problem.”

He continued: “The deadlines for meeting the legal obligations have long elapsed… we can delay no more.”

Poor air quality caused by vehicle emissions, industry, power plants and agriculture is known to cause or exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems.

Air pollution also has significant economic impacts, increasing healthcare costs, reducing employees’ productivity and damaging crops, soil, forests and rivers, according to the European Environment Agency’s latest annual report.

It has taken the London longer to reach the air pollution limit this year than last year when legal levels were breached less than a week into the new year.

But while campaigners welcomed action by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to tackle pollution, they warned the relative delay in reaching the limit this year could be down to weather conditions dispersing the dirty air.

Environmental groups called for the Government to take urgent steps, including creating and funding clean air zones in pollution hotspots across the UK where 85% of areas still break air quality rules which should have been achieved in 2010.

Government estimates suggest compliance for levels of nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from road transport, particularly diesel, will not be met until 2026.

The most recent data shows that around 7 per cent of the urban population within the EU was exposed to fine particulate levels higher than the EU-stipulated limit in 2015.

If the stricter World Health Organisation limits are applied, that rises sharply to 82 per cent.

The countries represented at Tuesday’s summit have been given ten days to submit new proposals for meeting EU air quality standards regarding particle levels.

In Mr Vella’s opinion, the proposals offered by the nine offending countries were “not substantial enough to change the big picture”.

He insisted that the only way to avoid court action was to take “all possible measures without delay”.

Reacting to the outcome of the summit, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Commissioner Vella was evidently unimpressed.

“The European Commission should now follow this blatant inaction through to its legal consequences and trigger court actions without further delay.

“The people of Europe have waited long enough to breathe clean air.”

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