‘Strong chance’ of EU action against UK over air quality

European Commission spokesman says there is a “strong chance” that the UK could face enforcement action from the EU over air quality breaches after yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling

There is a “strong chance” that the UK will face enforcement action over its failure to meet EU air quality limits in various areas in the country, according to the European Commission.

The Supreme Court yesterday (May 1) ruled that the UK was in breach of EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide in 16 of its 43 zones, and referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union (see story).

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The UK could face enforcement action from the European Commission over its failure to meet legal air quality limits

As a result, European Commission environment spokesman Joseph Hennon said there was a “strong chance” that the Commission would take enforcement action against the UK after campaign group ClientEarth’s case goes to the EU Court (CJEU).

Enforcement action from the EU could result in the UK being handed multi-million pound fines for failing to meet air quality limits.

However, Mr Hennon said that the Commission would need to consider whether to take enforcement action against the UK individually or to take action collectively against a number of member states in breach of limits.

Commenting on yesterday’s ruling, Mr Hennon said that the Commission “welcomes the UK Supreme Court judgment” as it means the CJEU “can now give EU-wide guidance and interpretation of the Air Quality Directive”.

He also said that the Commission “welcomes fact that UK’s top court recognises enforcement of EU law is as much national task as EU level one” and that “citizens and NGOs should be able to take environment issues to the national courts rather than to the European court”.

Speaking to, Mr Hennon said: “I would say there is a strong chance that the Commission would take enforcement action against the UK over the air quality breaches.

“Defra and CientEarth first of all need to agree on the precise questions to go to the European court, which the UK Supreme Court has given them four weeks to do. After that, it could take several months to go to the European court, but it is really up to the court. The process will certainly be much faster than if the Commission had taken the case to court.”


Defra has not commented specifically on the case or yesterday’s ruling, but said yesterday that: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants.”

Responding to this statement, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said it was “misleading to say that almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits” and called on the government to “be honest about air pollution’s scale and impact”.

He said: “Much of the UK land mass has a low population. Air pollution is a problem in cities where most people live. If you’re on holiday in the Highlands you’re at a low risk. If you grow up in an inner city it could do you irreversible and life threatening damage. If we’re going to solve this problem the first thing the Government needs to do is be honest about air pollution’s scale and impact.”

However, responding to ClientEarth in a message on Twitter, Defra’s director of climate, waste and atmosphere, Colin Church (@DefraWaste) said: “not misleading. Average grid square NO2 conc weighted for population was 20 ug/m3, well below limit (40ug/m3) in 2010.”

‘Powerful message’

Commenting on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, Keith Taylor, MEP for South East England, said: “This ruling confirms what many of us have been saying for a long time: The UK government must do more to protect the population from harmful levels of air pollution.

The government has known about these maximum limits for over ten years, yet has done precious little to reduce pollution. We now know that air pollution is second only to smoking in damaging human health. It’s time for immediate action, starting with reducing pollution in towns and cities.”

Also commenting on yesterday’s ruling, Clean Air in London campaigner, Simon Birkett, congratulated ClientEarth and said the judgment would “send shockwaves through government”.

He said: “The UK’s top court has sent a powerful message to the government that it cannot continue to ride roughshod over air pollution laws. Further, the wide ranging proposed reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union means that this case could soon set precedents for the most important aspects of air pollution laws across the whole of Europe, i.e. what must be done by when if laws are breached and the penalties for not acting.

“The government and the London Mayor must wake up to this new reality and take action to protect the general public not lobby to weaken these laws during the Year of Air in 2013.”


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11 years ago

I am a local resident in Southwark and often go over Southwark bridge into the City, over the last couple of weeks i have been monitoring the coaches that run their engines while stationary and there is quite a few…British as well as Foreign, i have emailed tfl and have heard nothing back, what are we going to do about this? and is there another solution to this growing problem of polluting our great city.

11 years ago
Reply to  Sean.Dennis

Hi Sean,
At Healthy Air London, we’re getting together with people like yourself- concerned Londoners – to help support local action to make the politicians, councillors and government organisations like TFL understand that communities need response on their demand for healthy air where they live, work and play. I am working with a group in Waterloo who are also worried about idling coaches and buses and we are welcoming more community group action. Please do get in touch if you would like some free support with this issue. If you are part of a local interest group perhaps I could come along and meet with you. There are alternatives and we don’t need to live with pollution at this level! Part of our work means proposing the solutions to the people who can make the right decisions with the right pressure- including from local people like you! Contact
Many thanks, Hannah

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