The UK and five other nations have been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.
The European court of justice (ECJ) has the power to impose multimillion euro fines if the countries do not address the problem swiftly. The nations – the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania – had been given a final warning by the European commission in January. Toxic air results in more than 400,000 early deaths across Europe each year.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide, mostly produced by diesel vehicles, have been illegally high since 2010 in the vast majority of urban areas in the UK. The government’s latest plan in 2017 was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors.
Ministers were forced by UK courts to improve the plan in February, after losing in the high court for the third time to environmental lawyers ClientEarth, and have until the end of 2018 to implement the stricter measures.
“We have waited a long time and we cannot possibly wait any longer,” said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment. “We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”
The six member states had failed to deliver “credible, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution as soon as possible, as required under EU law”, a statement from the commission said. In contrast, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain delivered sufficient new measures after being given a final warning in January.
ClientEarth CEO, James Thornton, said: “On top of our three successful cases, today’s legal action from the European commission is more damning evidence of the mountain the UK government still has to climb to bring air pollution to within legal limits.”
The World Health Organisation’s director of public health, Dr Maria Neira, said new urgency was need to tackle air pollution: “While air pollution knows no borders and puts everyone at risk, those most vulnerable – pregnant women, children, the elderly, those already ill or poor– are particularly affected.”
In the UK, Greenpeace’s Rosie Rogers said: “Ministers’ apathy on this issue so far has been nothing short of a dereliction of duty. [Environment secretary] Michael Gove should swiftly come up with a clear plan to tackle the diesel vehicles responsible for most roadside toxic pollution and an outright ban on the sale of petrol, diesel cars and vans from 2030.”
A spokesman for the UK environment department said: “We continue to meet EU air quality limits for all pollutants apart from NO2, and data shows we are improving thanks to our efforts to bring levels of NO2 down. We will shortly build on our £3.5bn plan to tackle roadside emissions with a comprehensive clean air strategy.”
Air pollution from NO2 causes an estimated 23,500 early deaths every year in the UK. The UN’s special rapporteur on pollution said in September that the UK government was “flouting” its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens. The problem was declared a public health emergency by a cross-party committee of MPs in 2016.
The government’s own research shows clean air zones (CAZs), in which cars are deterred from city centres by pollution charges, are by far the most effective solution to air pollution. But ministers refused to make them compulsory, instead making them a voluntary and last-resort option for local authorities.
The European legal case now moves to the ECJ, which will hold a hearing within months. If it declares the UK in breach of its legal duty, the UK gets a period of time to resolve the situation. If it does not, the court can then impose large fines.
The UK is leaving the EU but it is currently unclear when the ECJ’s jurisdiction over the UK would end, given the transition period already agreed. It is also possible that the UK will remain bound by ECJ judgments after Brexit, depending on the deal reached.
Also on Thursday, in the continuing fall-out from the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal, the European commission issued renewed warnings to the UK, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg over their alleged failure to “have effective and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter car manufacturers from breaking the law”. The nations have two months to reply to prevent action from being escalated.
Elżbieta Bieńkowska, industry commissioner said: “We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part. Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”
Keith Taylor, Green party MEP for south-east England, “Post-Brexit, this is exactly the kind of scrutiny and oversight the Tories plan to escape. Proposals for a so-called environment watchdog that is nothing but a lame lapdog put this reality in sharp relief.”