The UK government is making a 'mockery' of efforts to reduce air pollution in London and other cities, say campaigners, at the beginning of what may be a long legal battle.
In a landmark case, lawyers from ClientEarth will argue in the High Court today that the UK is failing to meet EU targets to reduce levels of the dangerous air pollutant, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), in UK cities.
Exposure to NO2 and other air pollutants is being linked to an increasing amount of health problems in cities, including reduced lung capacity in children in London and asthma and other respiratory problems.
The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimated that 29,000 premature deaths in the UK in 2008 were attributable to air pollution, as well as making a smaller contribution to more than 200,000 early deaths.
Under EU air quality rules, the UK was meant to meet reduction targets for NO2 by 2010. After failing to meet those targets, the UK is allowed under EU rules to apply for a time extension until 2015, the latest possible deadline.
However, in what campaigners say is a 'disgraceful' move the UK has put forward plans to delay meeting the reduction targets until 2020 in 17 regions and cities in the UK and 2025 in London.
It argues that the EU rules have a loophole that allow it to avoid asking for a time extension and instead submit plans which will meet the pollution targets in the 'shortest possible time'.
Campaigners say this makes a 'nonsense' of EU targets for air pollution.
'The entire directive is about complying with NO2 limits by 2010,' says Simon Birkett from the Campaign for Clean Air in London. 'If the government was right it would make a nonsense of the whole directive. It would mean member states did not need to do anything by any of the deadlines. That is ridiculous. They're putting more effort into arguing against it rather than tackling the problem.'
ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said they would be asking the court to declare the plans 'unlawful' and order the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to come up with a plan to reduce NO2 levels by 2015.
However, even if campaigners win their case today, Defra can appeal, which is then unlikely to be heard before next Summer. The fear is that Defra will try to delay any action until 2013 when a review of the EU's air quality targets is due. At this point it could lobby for new time extensions.
Such a move would go against the growing body of evidence about the dangers of air pollution on long-term health.
An on-going study of children in east London has found that air pollution is a factor in lung impairment. This backs up a 10-year study in California that found air pollution reduced lung capacity in children by 10 per cent, while also a likely factor in the development of asthma and heart disease.
What's more a recent study in the British Medical Journal found that breathing in large amounts of traffic fumes can trigger a heart attack. Even at low concentrations NO2 can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue and irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.
A Defra spokesperson said they could not comment on the High Court case but that they had set out plans to meet EU limits 'as soon as we can'.
The EU Commission said it had received the UK's request to delay the deadline to meet NO2 pollution limits. It says it can raise objections to any postponement and that it will make a decision on whether to approve the extension by July next year.
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