The UK has broken the law by “systematically and persistently” exceeding limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since 2010 and failing to tackle the problem in the shortest possible time, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled.
This could see the UK facing fines if it still fails to take action to comply, although now that the UK has left the EU there is uncertainty about whether this will happen.
Today’s ruling relates to failures that have also been the subject of successful legal challenges by ClientEarth in UK domestic courts since 2011.
It comes just months after a landmark inquest into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah ruled air pollution was a "material factor" in causing and worsening the asthma attacks she suffered leading to her death.
ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield said: “It’s no secret that successive UK governments have been leaving us exposed to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution for over a decade now.
“This ruling comes from a European court, but Brexit or no Brexit, these pollution limits remain in national law.
“The UK Government is still bound by these rules and our own domestic courts have repeatedly found that ministers have been flouting them ever since they came into force.”
Nield called for the Government to work with local leaders to put clean air zones (CAZs) in place as these are “the most effective solution” to tackling NO2 pollution quickly.
A number of cities put their CAZ plans on hold last year while they assessed the impact of the drop in traffic caused by the Covid-19 pandemic but Bath is now launching its CAZ this month, followed by Birmingham in June and Bristol in October.
However, Leeds City Council decided against introducing its CAZ as a shift to cleaner vehicles meant it was no longer required.
Following today’s ruling, if the UK still fails to comply within a reasonable period, the European Commission could issue a letter of formal notice requiring the UK to remedy the situation.
If the UK fails to do so, the Commission could bring the matter before the CJEU a second time, seeking to have financial penalties imposed, although there remains some uncertainty whether it will have the power or the inclination to do this, now the UK is no longer part of the EU.
The proposed Office for Environmental Protection will be the new domestic institution holding the UK Government accountable if it breaches its environmental responsibilities.
However, ClientEarth argues that this watchdog, proposed in the Environment Bill, “is being weakened before it even becomes law”.
“There are big question marks as to whether the proposed Office for Environmental Protection will have the independence, authority and resources to secure genuine improvements in environmental and public health standards,” Neild said.