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New legal threat over UK air pollution

4th Mar 2016

The British government has been warned to drastically reduce UK air pollution or face renewed legal action.

In April 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that an immediate plan was needed after the UK breached EU limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The government responded by saying it was committed to cleaning the air and had delivered its plans accordingly.

However, environmental law firm ClientEarth, which took the original case, said that the plans do not protect health and that the government can and must do better, as it believes the courts will back it again unless the government improves its current policies.

Around 40,000 people are estimated to die prematurely every year in the UK because of bad air quality. Ministers have responded by creating special anti-pollution zones in Leeds, Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and London, and have said that they have also committed £2bn from 2011 to improving standards of buses, dustbin lorries and fire engines. However, they do not believe that the air will meet EU health standards around the UK until 2020.

Alan Andrews from ClientEarth told the BBC the government had itself to blame for failing to act sooner against diesel cars.

“Throughout our five-year legal battle the government have claimed they couldn’t achieve legal limits because of the problems with the EU standards for diesel vehicles not delivering pollution reductions under normal driving conditions – but they failed to investigate why,” Andrews said.

“Then they lobbied the EU to water down new regulations which will require new diesel cars to meet emissions limits on the road. As a consequence, new diesel cars will be able to emit double the emission limit until 2021.”

Client Earth says that if the government declines to propose new measures it will ask the High Court to compel ministers to submit improved plans. It says the ministerial code obliges ministers to abide by court rules.

The European Commission has the powers to fine Britain, but is waiting to see the British legal process exhausted before it considers intervention.