UK government to face EU legal action over air pollution

The European Commission has confirmed it will pursue legal action against the UK and other EU member states over failure to meet air pollution limits.

In a statement issued by the Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella this morning, the Commission confirmed that it has referred France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to the Court of Justice of the EU for failure to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible.

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

Hungary, Italy, and Romania have been referred to the Court of Justice over persistently high levels of particulate matter (PM10).

The limits set out under EU legislation on ambient air quality (Directive 2008/50/EC) had to be met in 2010 and 2005 respectively.

Action against the Czech Republic and Spain has been dropped following meetings with ministers earlier this year (see story).


Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella said: “The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans. We have said that this Commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. The Member States referred to the Court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation.

The UK will be required to defend its action to tackle air quality again, this time at the European Court of Justice

“It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale. But legal action alone will not solve the problem. That is why we are outlining the practical help that the Commission can provide to the national authorities’ efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns.”

The UK has breached the 40ug/m3 average legal limit for NO2 in a number of regions, since the legislation came into force in 2010.

Subsequent plans to bring the UK into line with the limits have been overturned in the courts on three separate occasions, including in January this year, for failing to bring the UK into compliance the objective within the ‘soonest timeframe possible’, as required by the legislation.

Projections by government, in its July 2017 plan, suggest that many areas will continue to breach the limit well into the 2020s, more than a decade after the targets first applied.


The Commission is also taking further steps in its infringement procedures against four Member States, including the UK, on the grounds that they have disregarded EU vehicle type approval rules.

The Commission decided today to issue additional letters of formal notice to Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom.

EU type-approval legislation requires Member States to have effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter car manufacturers from breaking the law.

Where such a breach of law takes place, for example by using defeat devices to reduce the effectiveness of emission control systems, remedial measures — such as recalls — must be ordered and penalties must be applied.

The Commission opened infringement proceedings against Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom in December 2016 with regard to Volkswagen Group and sent complementary letters of formal notice in July 2017 requesting further clarifications.

Today, the Commission is sending additional letters of formal notice to request more information on the national investigations and legal proceedings related to these infringements.


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