A civil case against the UK Government for breaching air quality limits will be heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union CJEU in Luxembourg today.
The hearing was prompted following a successful legal action brought by ClientEarth which won a UK Supreme Court judgement that ruled the Government is breaching its legal duty to achieve limits for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas produced mainly by diesel exhausts.
The senior judges asked the CJEU to fast-track a ruling on the precise meaning of certain provisions of the EU Air Quality Directive. The CJEU’s judgment is expected before the end of the year. It will be binding on the UK courts and the national courts in all 28 EU member states.
The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court in early 2015 for a final ruling.
Despite the threat of huge fines, the UK Government yesterday delivered an even more pessimistic forecast of future levels of air pollution and blamed European law-makers for its inability to successfully tackle the issue.
Defra officials published the latest air quality projections across 43 zones nationwide for meeting European limits for nitrogen dioxide NO2, which they claims reflects the most up to date understanding of future NO2 levels.
The official figures show that three urban areas, Greater London, West Midlands and West Yorkshire, will not comply with strict EU air quality limits until sometime after 2030.
Environment chiefs fail to provide a forecast for when they believe pollution levels in the three zones will actually achieve the targets and blame watered-down European policies on road traffic emissions for the bleak outlook.
The report stated: “The emission factors for nitrogen oxides NO and NO2 from road traffic have been updated to reflect more accurate assumptions on the performance of modern diesel vehicles and older petrol cars.
“These projections do not take into account any additional measures to tackle NO2 beyond those included in the plans published in 2011.
“The assumptions, however, are more pessimistic than in previous projections. This is largely due to the failure of the European vehicle emission standards for diesel cars to deliver the expected emission reductions of NOx.”
The Government says it is currently updating air quality plans and it will continue to work with the European Commission and local authorities to consider further measures
Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “The UK Government claims that 2025 is the earliest it can possibly achieve legal limits that have been in force since 2010. The European Court’s ruling could force them to take urgent action to cut pollution from diesel vehicles much sooner. The best way to achieve this is a national network of Low Emission Zones.“This ruling will also reach beyond the UK’s borders and could force governments across the EU to take action. Air pollution is Europe’s number one environmental health risk, causing nearly half a million early deaths each year. The earlier we can achieve these limits, the fewer people will be made sick or die early from heart attacks, asthma and strokes.”
ClientEarth’s case concerns 16 cities and regions including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK – more than traffic accidents and passive smoking combined.