Supreme Court rules UK Government is breaking air pollution laws

The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the government has failed to meet European air pollution limits. Britain will therefore face European fines and may have to drastically reduce the use of heavy goods vehicles and cars in some of the UK’s major cities. Much of the problem is from diesel vehicles. The Supreme Court said  “The way is open for immediate enforcement action at national and European level.”  The government had been challenged by ClientEarth (lawyers who work on environmental issues) because of air quality concerns in 15 cities and regions across the UK, including London ( where one area that is very bad is around the Heathrow area), Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. The low air quality is already having a marked effect on health, and ClientEarth felt the only way to get the UK government to act on the matter was legal action.  The UK has so far made repeated attempts to get the air quality limits weakened or delayed. The European Court of Justice will have to clear up some legal issues, so the UK government may be able to play for time and delay doing anything for a year or so. The infringement action to be taken has not yet been  decided.  This will have an impact on Heathrow expansion plans.



UK failing legal duty on air pollution – Supreme Court

May 01, 2013 (

The UK Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government has failed to meet European pollution limits. Britain will face European fines and may have to drastically reduce vehicle use in cities.

The Wednesday ruling by five judges means that the government will face stiff EU fines and will probably have to limit the use of heavy goods vehicles and cars in some of the UK’s major cities, the Guardian reported.

“The way is open for immediate enforcement action at national and European level,” the Supreme Court confirmed.

The government was challenged by ClientEarth whose case concerns 15 cities and regions across the UK, including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

The decision delighted air pollution campaigners. However, the European Court of Justice will have to clear up some legal issues, so the UK government may be able to play for time and delay doing anything for a year or so.

Joe Henon, a spokesman for the EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik, said that the UK was already in breach of air pollution law but that they had not yet decided what infringement action would be taken.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer from ClientEarth who worked on the case, told RT that air pollution in the UK is having a “devastating effect on human health” and that they brought the case against the government because “we felt legal action was the only answer”.

“Today’s decision will put additional pressure on the government. I wouldn’t be surprised that in the next couple of months we see some new announcements from the government but the real game changes will be the European Court’s judgment, which will determine when the UK needs to achieve compliance,” said Andrews.

Andrews explained that the UK needs specific policies aimed at reducing pollution from diesels vehicles in towns and cities.

“The government’s plans are plans to do nothing, the only real policy they have is trying to weaken the limits. We need a national system of low emission zones” said Andrews.

The UK government declined to comment on this specific case but the Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) said, “Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants.”

But Stephen Joseph, chief executive from the Campaign for Better Transport said the decision will force the government to bring in alternative forms of transport to the car in cities.

“In practice this should mean investing in alternatives to cars and diesel vans and trucks, especially in towns and cities. It should call into question government plans for major new roads,” he told the Guardian.

Air pollution causes 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and is linked to heart and respiratory diseases, according to figures obtained from ClientEarth.

“The UK has worse air pollution than many equivalent countries in the EU. Some of the air pollution recordings from some of the busiest roads in London are 3-4 times higher than the legal limit and among the highest of any capital city in Europe,” said Andrews

“The longer they leave this, the more difficult it’s going to get, the more expensive it’s going to get and the more people are going to die.”



Supreme Court rules UK Government is breaking air pollution laws

1 May 2013 (Client Earth)

The Supreme Court has declared that the Government is failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution. This landmark decision in ClientEarth’s case is a departure from the judgments of the lower courts and paves the way for the European Commission to take legal action against the UK.

Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK – more than obesity and alcohol combined. Air pollution causes heart attacks, strokes, respiratory disease and children living near busy roads have been shown to grow up with underdeveloped lungs.

ClientEarth’s case concerns 16 cities and regions (including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow) which government plans show will suffer from illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas – until as late as 2020 or 2025.

The Supreme Court confirmed that because the Government is in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”. However, before deciding whether to take further action to enforce the law, it has referred a number of legal questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO, said: “This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson. Faced with court action on two fronts, he must now come up with an ambitious plan to protect people from carcinogenic diesel fumes. Until now, his only policy has been lobbying in Europe to try and weaken air pollution laws.”

“The Supreme Court recognised that this case has broader implications for EU environmental law: The Government can’t flout environmental law with impunity. If the Government breaks the law, citizens can demand justice and the courts must act.”


Notes to editors:

– Pollution from road traffic, and particularly diesel fumes, is the most significant cause of poor air quality. The two pollutants of most concern are microscopic airborne particles, known as ‘PM10’, and nitrogen dioxide.

– 2013 has been declared the “Year of Air” by the EU, which is overhauling all its air pollution laws. The World Health Organisation is calling for stricter standards to protect health after finding that the current limits are inadequate.

– The UK Government is lobbying to weaken air quality laws: Defra’s Red Tape Challenge Implementation Plan states its intention to ‘use the EC review of air quality legislation to seek amendments to the Air Quality Directive which reduce the infraction risk faced by most MSs, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions’.

– Defra’s plans project that compliance with nitrogen dioxide limits will not be achieved until as late as 2025 in Greater London and 2020 in the following: West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teeside, The Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, Eastern England, South East England, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands and North East England.

– Obesity and alcohol are each estimated to be responsible for 9,000 premature deaths per year. See table 2.1 in this recent report.

– The World Health Organisation has classified diesel exhaust fumes as carcinogenic for humans, based on evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.

– ClientEarth leads the Healthy Air Campaign, a coalition of health, environment and transport groups working to tackle the public health threat caused by air pollution. The campaign calls for a strong public voice to oppose the UK Government’s regressive stance on air quality.





 See also


EC stance on air pollution in London could affect ability of Heathrow to expand

November 17, 2012

Government plans to delay air pollution improvements in 12 areas of the UK areas were refused by the European Commission in June. The UK may now face fines if it fails to improve air quality quickly. The worst offender is London, where it is estimated that there over 4,000 ‘excess deaths’ per year from air pollution. This could have implications for Heathrow expansion. Air pollution is recognised by the government as the 2nd-biggest public health threat, after smoking. A judgement will be made at a later date on government plans to delay meeting NO2 standards in major cities until 2020 – or in the case of London, 2025. The EC decision addresses the shorter term, whereas a 3rd runway at Heathrow could not be operation for about 10 years. However, the tough stance by the EC suggests that any plan for Heathrow expansion, which increased air pollution and prevented limits being met, would face legal action.    Click here to view full story…




Is air pollution the biggest obstacle to a third runway at Heathrow?

September 7, 2012

Alan Andrews, from Client Earth (a group of environmental lawyers) writes that though Cameron’s reshuffle might have removed a couple of high profile political obstacles to a third runway, it has not dealt with the more difficult obstacle: EU air quality limits. EU law sets legally binding limits on levels of harmful pollution in our air. These limits, which are based on WHO guidelines, govern a number of pollutants which are damaging to human health. The limits for NO2 are currently being broken in towns and cities throughout the UK. But they are worst in London – which is thought to have the worst levels of NO2 of any EU capital. Where limits are breached, EU law requires that an action plan be drawn up which achieves compliance in the “shortest time possible.” The Government’s plan for London shows that limits won’t be achieved until 2025. Alan explains how this means expanding Heathrow would be subject to legal challenge and EU opposition.    Click here to view full story…