UK to miss air pollution deadline by 20 years, EU court told

Court of Justice of the European Union told today UK will not meet nitrogen dioxide limits in several cities until 2030

The UK is not expected to meet nitrogen dioxide limits in London, Birmingham and Leeds until after 2030 under current government air quality plans, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was told in Luxembourg today (July 10).

This date, according to campaign group ClientEarth which has brought the case against the UK government, is 20 years after the original EU deadline and five years later than previously estimated by Defra.

The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg

The Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg

According to ClientEarth, the revelations that the UK will not meet NO2 limits in these areas until 2030 were first disclosed in legally privileged correspondence responding to a separate legal action brought by the EU against the UK in February (see story).

However, this information was only made publicly available on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website last night (July 9 2014).

Today’s hearing follows the UK Supreme Court ruling last year (see story) that the UK government is breaching its legal duty to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide in 16 cities and regions — including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

As a result of this, the UK Supreme Court then asked the CJEU to rule on the precise meaning of certain provisions of the EU Air Quality Directive, which is the hearing taking place today.

According to ClientEarth, European Commission lawyers said the campaign group’s case was “a matter of life and death” and that this would be “perhaps the longest running infringement of EU law in history”.

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “Another five years of delay means thousands more people will die or be made seriously ill. The UK needs to act now to get deadly diesel vehicles out of our towns and cities.”

The CJEU is expected to make a judgment before the end of 2014. This judgment will be binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 EU member states. The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court in early 2015 for a final ruling.

A Defra spokesperson said: “As our understanding of NO2 evolves this must be reflected in our projections which is why we have revised these. It is well recognised air quality can affect people’s health which is why we are investing heavily in measures to improve it and have committed billions to increase uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, sustainable travel and green transport initiatives, all of which will help improve air quality.”

Defra highlighted air quality measures such as £2 billion investment in tackling transport emissions since 2011, the local authority Air Quality Grant Scheme and the Department for Transport’s Clean Vehicle Technology Fund.

The Department also said it had spent £400 million between 2010 and 2015 to support the early market for ultra-low emission vehicles and a further £500 million to support this up to 2020 among a number of other investments towards tackling air pollution.


Commenting today, Labour shadow environment minister, Barry Gardiner, criticised the government’s response to air pollution in the UK as “totally complacent”.

He said: “Today’s response from the European Court of Justice shows that the government is failing to meet even its own inadequate air pollution targets.”

Mr Gardiner added: “Instead of implementing measures to reduce the levels of pollution, the Government recently had to scrap its own air quality strategy because it would have made the problem worse, and currently the government have no plan.”

“Now the government’s only focus is covering their back by passing fines for their own failure to reduce air pollution on to local authorities. Without urgent action children in the UK will be waiting for another 20 years before they can expect any improvement.”


Campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland criticised both the UK and Scottish governments for the lack of progress on tackling air pollution in the likes of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Dr Richard Dixon, FoE Scotland director, said: “It was bad enough when Defra said in 2011 that Glasgow and Edinburgh would not meet clean air targets until after 2020 and 2015 respectively. The new projections from Defra push this out to 2025 and 2020, for targets which were supposed to have been met by the end of 2005.”

He added: “The UK and Scottish governments and the two councils have let the citizens of Scotland’s cities down badly through their lack of action. We need urgent action on traffic levels and polluting vehicles to make our air fit to breathe.”

“At this rate Glasgow will have clean air by the Commonwealth Games in 2026.”


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