The Government will argue in the Supreme Court this week that it has no obligation to reduce Britain’s harmful levels of air pollution within the time limits set by Europe.
Nitrogen dioxide NO2 levels are dangerously high in 16 regions of Britain, exceeding the EU limit which member nations were supposed to have complied with by 2010. Britain is the only nation not to apply for a time extension having failed to meet its 2010 deadline, because the Coalition has decided to fight European air regulations in court while lobbying to have them weakened.
The case comes just weeks after a World Health Organisation review found that exposure to nitrogen dioxide is harmful at even lower levels than the limits currently set by Europe.
Air pollution is estimated to cause 29,000 premature deaths each year in the UK at an average loss of life of 11.5 years. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the pollutants known to contribute to this figure, with links to conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
London has the highest recorded level of NO2 of any capital city in Europe. Mean levels of the toxic gas are not supposed to exceed 40 cubic micrograms over a calendar year, but some of London’s busiest roads are routinely at triple this level.
The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs will argue on Thursday that it is not possible to comply with European limits by 2015, so there was no point asking for an extension to the 2010 deadline. Instead they have made plans that mean most regions including Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow will not achieve legal limits for NO2 until 2020, and in the case of London, 2025.