Brussels seeks talks over NO2 limit breaches

Government ministers have been asked to clarify how the UK expects to meet EU air pollution limits, with the threat of potential legal proceedings from Europe remaining on the table.

The UK is one of nine EU member states to have been contacted by the European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella this week, seeking a dialogue on the steps being taken to meet NO2 pollution limits.

Karmenu Vella (© European Union , 2016. Source: EC – Audiovisual Service. Photo: François Walschaerts)

Ministers from countries including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which have also recorded persistent breaches of NO2 limit values, have also been contacted by the Commissioner who is seeking to open talks on the issue with ministers in Brussels later this month (30 January).

The government has put forward proposals which would see authorities in more than 20 areas across England put in place measures to bring them into compliance with legally binding EU air NO2 limits ‘within the shortest time possible’ (see story).

AQ Plan

The plan, focused on roadside locations, includes the potential for the introduction of Clean Air Zones where other measures are found not to be effective. However, authorities are required to demonstrate that they have considered a range of steps before a Clean Air Zone can be taken forward. Councils named within the plan have until December to put firm proposals in place.

It is intended that these steps will bring the overall UK air quality into compliance with the EU’s ambient air quality Directive before the end of the decade in order to avoid the potential for further infringement proceedings by the Commission, which has threatened legal action against the UK and other EU members.

According to the Commission, more than 400,000 EU citizens die prematurely each year as a result of poor air quality, while millions more suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases caused by air pollution. 70,000 premature deaths across the continent are attributable to NO2 pollution, it claims.

The Commission has this week confirmed that the UK was among the member states to have been contacted to clarify plans to address air pollution.

When contacted by a Commission spokesperson said: “Commissioner Vella has sent a letter to nine Member States in an attempt to find solutions, as regards exceeding levels of air pollution.

“Commissioner Vella invited concerned Ministers to a meeting in Brussels on 30 January, in order to identify solutions to improve the situation and protect citizens health.

“As underlined in the letter, this is a serious and urgent matter and we need to work with Member States to resolve this.”

‘Active engagement’

Defra is expected to respond to the letter, although it is not known whether a UK minister will accept the Commissioner’s invitation to talks in Brussels at the end of the month.

Responding to the Commission’s comments, a Defra spokesperson said: “Air pollution has improved significantly since 2010, but we recognise there is more to do which is why we have put in place a £3.5billion plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions.

“We are at the forefront of calls for the EU to introduce Real Driving Emissions testing which is essential in meeting our air quality goals, the first stage of which came in for all new models of vehicles in September 2017. We continue to actively engage at a European and international level to tackle air pollution.”

The focus on air pollution from the Commissioner comes at a crucial time for the UK government’s bid to bring the country into compliance with air pollution legislation, as it faces a legal challenge against its latest clean air plan in the courts next week.

The challenge is the latest to be brought by the environmental law charity ClientEarth, which has to date succeeded in forcing the government to re-draw plans to tackle air quality.

ClientEarth has argued that the latest version of the government’s plans to tackle air pollution “falls far short of what is needed to bring air pollution to within legal limits as soon as possible” (see story).


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