EU legal action a ‘wake-up call’ on air quality

News that the UK government is to face legal proceedings over its failure to meet air quality limits should act as a ‘wake-up call’ for more action on the issue, politicians and campaigners have claimed.

This morning, EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella announced that the UK alongside other member states including France and Germany, are to be referred to the EU Court of Justice for failure to meet legal limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution since 2010 (see story).

Neil Parish, Efra Committee chair

This is particularly problematic for the government, which has had to defend its own plans to address air quality in the UK courts on several occasions over the last five years, for failing to bring the UK into compliance the objective within the ‘soonest timeframe possible’, as required by the legislation.

Defending the government’s record on air pollution today, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We continue to meet EU air quality limits for all pollutants apart from nitrogen dioxide, and data shows we are improving thanks to our efforts to bring levels of NO2 down.

“We will shortly build on our £3.5bn plan to tackle roadside emissions with a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy setting out a wide range of actions to reduce pollution from all sources.”

‘Wake-up call’

However, whilst the government has been keen to highlight that air quality is improving in some parts of the country, the announcement from Brussels has prompted criticism from several corners.

Among them, Neil Parish, Conservative MP and chair of the Commons’ Efra Committee, criticised the government for ‘failing to come up with a coherent plan’ for addressing air pollution.

He said: “The news that the European Commission will be taking the UK Government to court for dangerous levels of air pollution should be a wake-up call. It is astonishing that, despite a series of legal defeats, the government has consistently failed to come up with a coherent and effective plan to tackle this national health emergency.

“Addressing the UK’s toxic air should be more than just a box-ticking exercise. In our joint inquiry into air quality, we found little evidence of the decisive steps needed to protect the public. It is simply not acceptable that over 40,000 lives are being cut short each year because the government is too timid to take the necessary action.”


As well as the UK, France and Germany, all of whom are being pursued due to their failure to meet NO2 limits, Hungary, Italy, and Romania have been referred to the Court of Justice over persistently high levels of particulate matter.

“…data shows we are improving thanks to our efforts to bring levels of NO2 down,” Defra has said.

Action against the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain has not been pursued as measures being put in place in each of the countries, ‘appear to be appropriate, if implemented’ the Commission has claimed.

Ministers from all nine countries were summoned to a meeting in Brussels in January to outline how they intended to meet their targets.

ClientEarth, the environmental campaign group which has led three successful legal challenges against the government’s air quality plans in the UK courts, as well as a string of cases in Europe has called on the Commission to ‘swiftly’ pursue justice in each case.

Reacting to the announcement, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “We are glad that, at last, the Commission is taking serious steps to fight air pollution before the Court of Justice. But it shouldn’t have taken so long. Air pollution requires urgent action and it’s been clear for too many years that authorities all across Europe are failing to protect their people from illegal and harmful levels of air pollution.

“It is disappointing that not all nine countries called in for a meeting with the Commission in January have been referred today. The Commission should have made no exceptions and referred them all. There are no first class and second class citizens: all Europeans have the right to breathe clean air.

“We call on the Commission to continue show its full commitment to improve air quality in Europe and swiftly pursue all countries in breach of air quality laws.”


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