Supreme Court to hear air pollution case against UK government

The UK Supreme Court of Justice is set to hear environmental campaigners’ appeal against the Government for failing to comply with EU air pollution laws in March

A court case against the UK government for failing to comply with EU air pollution limits is set to be heard by the Supreme Court of Justice on March 7.

Environmental campaign group ClientEarth succeeded in securing a hearing which could eventually force the UK government to publish more stringent plans to meet EU air quality targets.

The ClientEarth appeal will be heard on March 7 2013 at the UK Supreme Court (Photo - UK Supreme Court)

The ClientEarth appeal will be heard on March 7 2013 at the UK Supreme Court (Photo – UK Supreme Court)

The Supreme Court only hears those cases which are “of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population”.

The 2008 EU Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) stipulates that targets to reduce key air pollutants including nitrogen dioxide and particular matter PM10 need to be met by 2015, but the government has not put in place plans to meet these 2015 targets for several regions and cities and has also not applied for an extension to the deadline.

Under the government’s current plans, several regions and cities in the UK will not meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide until 2020. Despite this, the government did not establish more stringent plans in order to apply for an extension beyond 2015.

According to ClientEarth: “Current plans for 16 regions and cities (including London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow) will not achieve legal limits for nitrogen dioxide until 2020, and in the case of London, 2025. The original deadline for achieving these limits was 1 January 2010.”

The government had previously applied to extend the 2010 deadline to 2015 for a number of zones in the UK (see story).

2011 High Court ruling

A High Court ruling in December 2011 had forced the government to concede that the UK was above legal pollution limits set by the European Union, but no action was taken against the government.

However, ClientEarth launched an appeal to the ruling in December 2011 on the grounds that the government’s decision not to apply for a five-year extension to produce a plan to bring the UK in-line with the EU targets “undermined the effectiveness” of the EU initiative, which was designed to protect public health.

ClientEarth lost this appeal against the High Court ruling in July 2012, as the court declared that any action to force the government to submit a new strategy for improving air quality would need to be carried out by the European Commission.

However, it is not known whether the European Commission will decide to take action to force the UK government to publish new plans that comply with the 2015 target.

ClientEarth, therefore, submitted an application to the UK Supreme Court and an appeal will now be heard in March. A decision on whether an appeal should be heard had originally been expected before Christmas (see story).

According to CientEarth, the grounds for their appeal is supported by the European Commission in a letter sent to ClientEarth on 29 June 2012. The letter states that the Commission’s normal policy is to “…allow national proceedings to run their course before deciding whether or not to instigate our own infringement proceedings…”

‘Public health crisis’

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to hear the appeal

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal

James Thornton, ClientEarth chief executive, said: “For too long the government has got away with failing to tackle this public health crisis. Instead it is lobbying in Brussels to try to weaken standards and fighting tooth and nail in court to avoid its legal obligations. Where the government fails to fulfil its responsibilities to its citizens, we have the right to go before our national courts and demand that action is taken.”

He added: “They need to face up to their responsibilities and produce a credible plan to clean up the dirty diesel vehicles which are choking our towns and cities.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are aware that ClientEarth has been given leave to appeal the judgement made by the Court of Appeal last May. A significant part of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants and air quality has improved considerably in recent decades.  Our air quality plans for nitrogen dioxide set out all the important work being done to meet EU standards in the shortest possible time.”

The appeal on March 7 will be streamed live on the UK Supreme Court of Justice’s website.


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