ECJ affirms UK's right to clean air - the Government must act!

Air Pollution Level 5, London, April 30 2014. Photo: David Holt via Flickr.
Air Pollution Level 5, London, April 30 2014. Photo: David Holt via Flickr.
A landmark judgment by the European Court of Justice compels the UK Government to act as soon as possible to reduce air pollution in British cities, writes Keith Taylor - and a good thing too for our health, safety and wellbeing. But it's not just the UK that benefits: every EU country must also comply with the ruling.
The UK Goverment should draw up and implement urgent plans immediately to drastically cut pollution from diesel vehicles and bring itself within the law.

The European Court of Justice delivered a landmark verdict today by ruling in favour of ClientEarth's case against the UK Government for its failure to tackle air pollution.

This ground-breaking ruling, the first ever on the effect of the EU's Air Quality Directive, puts the UK Government in "ongoing breach" of UK law.

And it means that the UK Supreme Court will be compelled to take action against the Government, with the threat of huge fines being handed out further down the line if the breach continues.

The ruling has also paved the way for future legal actions to enforce other EU targets on emissions and energy efficiency.

How did the Government get in such a mess?

The EU's Air Quality Directive sets legal limits on air quality which member states are required to meet within a certain time frame.

Our current government is failing spectacularly to meet these targets: it has drawn up plans which show it will not meet nitrogen dioxide limits until after 2030 - 20 years after the original deadline!

This prompted environmental lawyers at ClientEarth to take our Government to court. This is embarrassing for the Government to say the least - and it's deeply concerning that it takes an EU Court ruling for them to start taking the issue of air pollution seriously.

ClientEarth got it right when they said: "We have a legal right to breathe clean air. When the government fails in its duty to uphold that, the courts must step in.

"If the government were allowed to stick with current proposals for tackling pollution, a child born today in London, Birmingham or Leeds would have to wait until after their 16th birthday before they can breathe air that meets legal limits.

"ClientEarth does not believe this is acceptable, which is why we have challenged the government through the courts for the past five years to tackle the problem urgently. The longer government is allowed to delay, the more people will die or be made seriously ill by air pollution."

In their judgment, the panel of European judges said the Government should have planned to secure compliance with the Directive by January 2015 - 15 years earlier than it intended.

Air pollution and disease - the facts

Air pollution, primarily caused by emissions from road vehicles, is the second biggest killer in our country after smoking. According to the Healthy Air campaign, air pollution contributes to around 200,000 early deaths in the UK each year.

The UK Goverment should draw up and implement urgent plans immediately to drastically cut pollution from diesel vehicles and bring itself within the law.

Cars, lorries, vans and buses emit large amounts of air pollution directly into the streets where we live and work. With more vehicles on the road than ever, this is creating significant problems. In densely populated areas like London the impacts are exacerbated.

Burning fuels in boilers and power stations is another source of air pollution. Heating boilers, power generation, and industry burning coal, oil, wood, petrol, diesel and natural gas - energy sources which we are very reliant on, are all significant sources of pollution.

I also remain concerned about the impact of aviation on air pollution - particularly with proposals for a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Air pollution is an invisible public health crisis. Long term exposure to air pollution is associated with heart and lung disease. Diesel fumes are the main source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - a harmful gas linked with heart attacks and asthma and the gas that this court case rests on.

Children can be particularly vulnerable to the impacts. Research has shown that children growing up near motorways can suffer permanently reduced lung capacity. This may also be the case for people living nearby to other high polluting industries such as airports.

Even those who live and work in areas with clean air can have their health affected when they visit a polluted area as short term exposure to air pollution can irritate our airways, causing wheezing and shortness of breath. This is particularly a problem for those with existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma.

What happens next?

The growing problem of air pollution isn't going to go away. As the Green MEP for South East England, an area widely affected by poor air quality, I believe this issue needs to be tackled at every level of Government, from local councils to Westminster.

For that to happen the Government must wake up to the reality of air pollution. Clean air is one of the fundamental things we need in order to enjoy good health and a good quality of life.

The judgment is also good news for the rest of Europe. As ClientEarth points out, today's judgment sets a "groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law" - one that will paves the way for other legal challenges across the EU. ClientEarth has promised to "spearhead these efforts to help people defend their right to clean air in court."

The legal case will return to the UK Supreme Court for a final ruling in 2015, for judges to apply the ECJ's ruling to the facts in the UK case, following the judges order that

"it is for the national court having jurisdiction, should a case be brought before it, to take, with regard to the national authority, any necessary measure, such as an order in the appropriate terms, so that the authority establishes the plan required by the directive in accordance with the conditions laid down by the latter."

In other words the UK Supreme Court is required to order the government to draw up a new plan to meet limits in a much shorter timeframe. But the Government should not wait until it is ordered - it should draw up and implement urgent plans immediately to drastically cut pollution from diesel vehicles and bring itself within the law.

In my opinion, dirty diesel-burning HGVs, buses and trains in particular should be a first priority for emissions reductions, with urban buses switching to 'hybrid' and purely electric technologies.

There's also a case for 'grounding' all non-essential diesel vehicles at times of high air pollution. And the Green Party believes that London's plans for an 'ultra low emission zone' should be rolled out nationally.

But we must also address the deeper causes - which means investing much more in sustainable transport methods such as cycling and walking, and the shift from cars to public transport to reduce overall traffic levels. The public must also be properly warned of the risks, and how to reduce exposure.

There's lots to do - and it's high time for the Government to stop prevaricating, wake up and get on with the job!



Keith Taylor is the Green MEP for South East England.



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