Judgement day set for UK air pollution case

EU Court of Justice will make judgement next month over what action the UK government can be compelled to take to comply with NO2 limits

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will decide next month (November 19) what remedial action the UK government can be forced to take to comply with EU nitrogen dioxide limits.

In a case brought by campaign group ClientEarth, the UK Supreme Court ruled in May 2013 that the government is in breach of EU legal air quality limits for NO2 (see story).

The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg

The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg

The case was then referred to the CJEU to decide what action the UK Supreme Court can compel the UK government to take to tackle the nitrogen dioxide problems, and a judgement on this will be made on November 19 2014.

In July 2014, it was revealed that, under current plans, the UK is not expected to meet NO2 limits in London, Birmingham and Leeds until after 2030 — 20 years after the original EU deadline and five years later than previously estimated by Defra (see story).

Since ClientEarth first brought the long-running case against the UK government, the European Commission has also separately launched legal proceedings against the UK over its ‘failure to cut excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide’, as well as against 16 other EU Member States (see story).

Defra has said it is “investing heavily” in measures to improve air quality and comply with EU law, including £2 billion since 2011 on initiatives to increase the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, sustainable travel and green transport.


Speaking to, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said that “millions of people could be affected by the case”, as it is the first time a Member State has been challenged in court for breaching EU air pollution limit values.

This “landmark” case, therefore, could have implications for the other Member States breaching air quality laws, but the CJEU’s ruling will then be referred back to the UK Supreme Court, and Mr Andrews said the case was “not over by a long way”.

But he said that much more needed to be done to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution both in and outside of London if the UK is going to comply with EU limits, and that Boris Johnson’s proposals for an ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) from 2020 — currently under consultation (see story) — to cut traffic emissions were not strong enough.

“The ground now is starting to shift and a lot of people are coming round to the issue — including the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Defra.”

Mr Andrews said: “I would give a cautious welcome to the ULEZ proposals — it is a step in the right direction.

“The scale of the problem in London is so colossal that even this big idea is not going to get the UK to comply. The size of the zone is just too small — there is a big chance that cars will just drive around the zone.

ClientEarth's Alan Andrews

ClientEarth’s Alan Andrews

Mr Andrews also called for a national framework of low emission zones to be implemented across the UK: “Outside London there is almost nothing happening. If a ULEZ is good enough for London then why is it not good enough for Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester? It is not as bad in those places than in London perhaps, but they are still experiencing quite serious levels.”

He added: “What a national framework needs to do is make sure that these low emission zones actually work in practice and that they actually make real world reductions.”

Following the CJEU’s judgment next month, Mr Andrews will be speaking at the National Air Quality Conference 2014 in London on November 26 2014, alongside a range of other political figures and experts in the air quality realm. More information on the conference is available on the event website.



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gordon maurice littlewood MBE
gordon maurice littlewood MBE
9 years ago

The essential and urgent decisions by the various governments regarding the air quality situation in the UK, and it’s many constituent cities and towns, has long been delayed and I welcome the actions being envisaged to force the government to take immediate steps to force through legislation that will address this unacceptable and untenable position.

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