European Commission launches legal action against UK over failure to reduce air pollution

The European Commission has launched legal proceedings over levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in many British cities. There has been a long-running legal battle between London and Brussels over the 16 urban centres in the UK that will not be able to meet binding air quality standards by 2015, despite being granted a 5-year extension following the original 2010 deadline for compliance with the rules. 15 of the affected zones will not meet the standards until 2020 and parts of London are unlikely to meet NO2 standards until 2025, a full 15 years later than the original deadline. The EC has now started the legal case, which is likely to result in hefty fines of many millions of ££s which should have the effect of accelerating efforts to tackle air pollution. The zones included Greater London and the South East. The legal case has been precipitated by the environmental campaign group ClientEarth. The UK has some of the highest levels of NO2 in Europe.  The UK government now has 2 months to respond to the EC’s legal action. The Heathrow area has bad air quality levels, due partly to the planes but with an even higher proportion from the intense road traffic, especially diesel vehicles, that the airport attracts.


EU Commission launches legal action over UK air quality

By Matt McGrath, Environment correspondent,

BBC News


The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against the UK for failing to deal with air pollution.

The EU says that levels of nitrogen dioxide, mainly from diesel engines, are “excessive” in many British cities.

The Commission says that this gas can lead to major respiratory illnesses and premature deaths.

Britain was supposed to meet EU limits by 2010, but the government admits that London won’t achieve this standard until 2025.

The UK’s problem with dirty air stems from the EU’s air pollution directive, which came into force in 2008.

It set limits on the the levels of air-borne contaminants, including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, gases that are produced from the burning of fossil fuels.

They are an important element of ground-level ozone, which can damage human health as well as plants and animals.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which in the main is produced by diesel cars and trucks, can inflame the lining of the lungs and lead to respiratory disease.

It is of particular concern to people living near roadways in big cities and those suffering with asthma.

Excess gas

Controlling the amount of this gas in air has proved particularly difficult for the UK.

For the purposes of air pollution, the UK is divided into 43 zones.

In 2010, when the EU restrictions were meant to come into effect, the levels of nitrogen dioxide were exceeding the limits in 40 of these 43 areas.

Member states were able get an extra five years’ grace if they put in place plans to cut levels of NO2. The UK admitted that the limits relating to 16 zones including London, could not be met by the revised deadline of 2015.

For many of these areas, including Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Merseyside and Glasgow, the government believes the levels can be reached by 2020.

In London though, they admit it is likely to be 2025.

For the EU, this is far too long. They’ve decided to launch the first case against a member state for breaching the limits on NO2.

Several other EU members, including France, Sweden, Denmark and Greece have also exceeded the levels, but the EU denied that the UK was being picked on.

Sat image
Europe’s nitrogen dioxide emissions in 2008 as seen from an ozone measuring instrument on a satellite

“Our priority is to protect public health and the environment,” said European Commission spokesman Joe Hennon.

“We think that’s what the people of the UK would want as well.”

What might have tipped the EU’s hand was a ruling by the UK Supreme Court last year.

In a case brought by environmental campaigners ClientEarth, the judges agreed that the government was in breach of an obligation to reduce air pollution.

In the judgement, Justice Lord Carnworth wrote that “the way is now open to immediate enforcement at national or European level.”

The campaign group believes that, in addition to the Supreme Court verdict, the scale and the duration of the UK’s breaches made the EU action inevitable.

“The UK has some of the worst NO2 levels in Europe, they’re a national disgrace,” said Alan Andrews, a lawyer with ClientEarth.

“London has a particular problem, in some streets it is three or four times above the legal limits.”

The legal process could ultimately end in the European Court of Justice where the UK would face huge fines if found in breach of the directive.

If the government is to cut levels it will need to take drastic actions, say campaigners. Around half of new car sales are diesel powered, they say. There will need to be strict low emissions zones in cities.

“Germany implemented low emissions zones very early,” said Alan Andrews.

“They have 60, we just have the one in London and ours doesn’t include cars – it’s a low standard.”

Another option is cutting speed limits.

“The evidence from Germany suggests they can reduce NO2 by 10-15% on heavily polluted roads, but the scale here in the UK is so big they need to be looking at everything possible to tackle the problem,” said Mr Andrews.

The UK has two months to respond to the European Commission.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that Britain wasn’t alone in breaching the NO2 limits, pointing out that in 2012, 21 member states reported their emissions did not comply with the annual mean target.

“Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades. Just like for other Member States, meeting the NO2 limit values alongside busy roads has been a challenge,” said a spokesman.

“That is why we are investing heavily in transport measures to improve air quality around busy roads and we are working with the Commission to ensure this happens as soon as possible.”


The main pollutants

  • Particulate matter – fine dust emitted by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Experts are particularly concerned about particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres
  • Sulphur dioxide – emitted by power generation, industry and shipping. Damages health and acidifies land and water
  • Nitrogen oxides – released by road vehicles, shipping and power generation. Harms health and contributes to acid rain
  • Ammonia – emitted by livestock and through the use of fertilisers. Damages health and causes acidification
  • Volatile organic compounds – emitted from solvents, vehicles and power generation. They are a key component of ground-level ozone
  • .
  • .
  • The invisible killer

    • Campaigners say that research shows air pollution causes around 29,000 early deaths in the UK every year
    • Across the EU, more than 400,000 people died prematurely in 2010 from air pollution, according to the Commission. As well as deaths, 100 million work days are lost every year through illnesses like asthma.
    • The direct costs to society, including damage to crops and buildings, amounts to 23bn euros every year
    • .
    • .

      Related BBC Stories

The levels of air pollution at and around Heathrow are monitored by Heathrow Airwatch at



The European Commission’s press release:

Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems

Nitrogen oxides like NO2 are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households. They are a key component in increased levels of ground-level ozone, which is very harmful to human health. They cause acid rain, damaging plant and animal life in forests, lakes and rivers, and harming buildings and historical sites. They can also cause eutrophication, when an excess of nutrients such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia threatens biodiversity through the excessive growth of plants like algae.

For details of European air quality legislation:

The time extension website:




EU launches legal action against UK over air pollution

Commission kicks off long-awaited legal proceedings over UK’s failure to comply with air quality rules

By BusinessGreen staff

20 Feb 2014

Congestion charge C road sign in London

The UK’s continuing failure to meet legally binding EU air quality standards looks set to land the government in court, after the European Commission today launched legal proceedings over levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in many British cities.

The latest development in the long-running legal battle between London and Brussels was sparked after the UK government acknowledged that 16 urban centres across the country would not be able to meet binding air quality standards by 2015, despite being granted a five-year extension following the original 2010 deadline for compliance with the rules.

Moreover, the government has said that 15 of the affected zones will not meet the standards until 2020 and parts of London are unlikely to meet NO2 standards until 2025, a full 15 years later than the original deadline.

Consequently, the European Commission has today kicked off legal proceedings against the UK, raising the prospect of multi-million euro fines and increasing pressure on the government to accelerate efforts to tackle air pollution.

“EU legislation contains flexibility as regards the deadlines for returning air pollution to safe levels,” the Commission said in a statement. “Although the original deadline for meeting the limit values was 1 January 2010, extensions have been agreed with Member States which had a credible and workable plan for meeting air quality standards within five years of the original deadline, i.e. by January 2015. The UK has not presented any such plan for the zones in question.

“The Commission is therefore of the opinion that the UK is in breach of its obligations under the Directive, and a letter of formal notice has been sent.”

The statement also confirms that the zones deemed to be in breach of the rules are Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the East, the South East, the East Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the West Midlands and the North East.

The Commission was under pressure to act after a legal case brought by environmental campaign group ClientEarth led to a Supreme Court ruling that the UK is in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive and as such “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”.

James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, said that urgent action was now needed from the government to tackle air pollution and head off the EU’s legal action.

“We have the right to breathe clean air and the government has a legal duty to protect us from air pollution,” he said in a statement. “The Commission has singled out the UK following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year. The UK has some of the highest levels of NO2 in Europe. If [Environment Secretary] Owen Paterson wants to avoid another disaster for his department he will need an ambitious plan to protect people from deadly diesel fumes.”

He added that the government should focus on delivering a “national network of low emission zones to save lives and making the UK a world leader in clean transport”.

The UK government now has two months to respond to the European Commission’s legal action.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out that the UK was not the only EU state to fail to meet the conditions of the Air Quality Directive and insisted that it was investing in tackling air pollution.

“Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades,” said a spokesman for the department. “Just like for other Member States, meeting the NO2 limit values alongside busy roads has been a challenge. That is why we are investing heavily in transport measures to improve air quality around busy roads and we are working with the Commission to ensure this happens as soon as possible.”






Heathrow third runway would treble air pollution deaths, study warns

Research is the first to analyse the health consequences of aircraft fumes at Britain’s major airports
  • Roland Pease (BBC)
  • 12 October 2012

Premature deaths from Heathrow pollution would treble by 2030 if a third runway is built, according to an academic study to be published next week.

Even if the airport does not expand, increased numbers of flights will lead to a more than doubling in the number of deaths from pollution, the authors conclude.

The research, which is sure to be seized on campaigners and politicians opposed to Heathrow expansion, is the first to analyse the health consequences of aircraft fumes at the major airports of Britain. It reveals there would be major health benefits if Heathrow operations were replaced with a new hub in the Thames estuary.

“The main issue with Heathrow is it’s essentially in the middle of a major population centre,” says Prof Steven Barrett, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory for aviation and the environment and senior author of the study. “Also, because of the prevailing winds in the UK, emissions tend to get blown over the whole of London. An airport in the Thames estuary is well away from any major conurbation, and the prevailing winds would carry pollution out over the English Channel and North Sea.”

The study, which has been accepted by the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Environment, focuses on the public health effects of operations at the 20 largest airports in the UK, in particular those around London. It is not only exhausts during landing and take-off that degrade local air quality. Taxi-ing, airport support equipment and the jet-fuelled auxiliary power units that generate onboard electricity also add to the pollution burden.

The researchers conclude that, based on 2005 data, UK airports contribute to 110 early deaths each year, mostly due to lung cancer and cardiopulmonary complaints. Of those, 50 can be attributed to Heathrow alone, they calculate.

With government figures projecting a more than 50% rise in air travel over the next two decades, the public health effects are also expected to increase. If Heathrow is expanded with a third runway to allow for unconstrained growth, the airport would be responsible for 150 early deaths; UK-wide deaths would be 260. Even without the third runway, mortality figures will rise substantially. The researchers expect 250 deaths UK-wide, though those directly attributable for Heathrow would be 110, as other airports would carry more traffic.

The researchers also modelled the radically different scenario of closing down Heathrow altogether and moving its operations to a new hub in the Thames Estuary – sometimes referred to as “Boris island” after the proposals by the London mayor, Boris Johnson.

That would save 60 lives UK-wide, and the new expanded hub itself would be responsible for 50 early deaths, the same as Heathrow now, the study found. Relocating the airport would not make a big difference to the airport’s impact on climate change via CO2 emissions from planes.

The projections are likely to feed into the government’s consultation on aviation and are due to be discussed next week by the London assembly’s health and environment committee, according to its chair Murad Qureshi.

Epidemiologist Fintan Hurley, who led a major inquiry into pollution risks for the government’s advisory committee on the medical effects of air pollutants (COMEAP), welcomed the report, but noted that the additional effects of car and lorry journeys to Heathrow had not been included in the analysis. Future changes, by the addition of rail links for example, should be included in any full comparison of airport plans, he said.

The committee study headed by Hurley concluded in 2008 that 29,000 premature deaths are caused annually in the UK by air pollution. He said: “While 110 deaths is small compared with air pollution deaths in the UK as a whole, there would be major investigations if we had 110 deaths annually in the UK from aeroplane crashes.”

“Every death,” said Barrett, “represents an average of 10 years of lost life.”

Many of the deaths could be avoided by relatively simple measures, Barrett argued. Airplanes get their electricity from onboard auxilliary power units – small jet engines that are often left running while the planes are at the stands. Plugging into the airport electricity supply would reduce those emissions. As would the use of electric vehicles for airport support operations. And using desulphurised fuel would add only 2% to fuel costs, while reducing the health effects by 20%. Altogether, mitigation efforts could halve the pollution from airport operations.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Aviation is a far smaller contributor to air pollution than road traffic, however we are already taking significant steps to tackle the problem. For example, we subsidise local public transport so people can travel for free without the need for a car. We also charge airlines based on how green they are – so the cleanest aircraft are charged less to land at Heathrow.”




Heathrow air pollution in relation to 2013 being the “Year of Air”


The European Commission has announced that 2013 is the ‘Year of Air’ with key European air pollution legislation up for review.  The review represents a tremendous opportunity to improve public health by tightening air quality standards. Clean Air in London (CAL) believes that key outcomes from the ‘Year of Air’ must include continuity and the further tightening of health and legal protections. Increasing ‘flexibility’ in air pollution laws would weaken existing health and legal protections and is therefore unacceptable.  There is a consultation by the EC,  on options for the revision of the EU Thematic Strategy on air pollution and related policies, with the closing date on 4 March 2013. Heathrow is a major contributor to air pollution in West London, both from the airport itself and associated road traffic. Information from Hillingdon Council showed a clear correlation between the number of air transport movements and the levels of NOx.


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


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. 



‘Unclear’ who would pay UK air quality fines, say experts

February 21, 2014 (Air Quality News)

Air quality experts and politicians react to the EU’s legal action over the UK’s failure to meet air quality standards, which could result in £300m fines each year

Air quality experts and politicians have reacted to the EU’s decision to take the UK to court over its failure to meet standards for nitrogen dioxide, but have questioned whether it would be the UK government or local authorities paying the £300 million fines that could be levied as a result.

Yesterday (February 20), the European Commission announced that it was pursuing legal action against the UK government for breaching limits for nitrogen dioxide in 16 of 43 zones in the country and failing to reduce concentrations by the 2010 deadline (see story).

Emissions from road and traffic pollution is largely to blame for the UK’s failure to comply with EU standards for nitrogen dioxide

As a result, the UK could face EU fines of up to £300 million for every year that it fails to comply with the air quality standards.

Roger Barrowcliffe, chair of the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM) – a membership organisation for air quality professionals – said it was currently unclear who would have to pay such a fine – but that as a result of Local Air Quality Management legislation giving more responsibility to councils, it could be local authorities footing some of the bill.

However, he told “Should the government pass them on to local authorities, this will be very harsh and counterproductive to good local air quality management, which is struggling for resources at local level in any event.”

Mr Barrowcliffe also said he was “surprised” it had taken so long for the Commission to take the decision, but that the government really needed to target road transport emissions if the UK is going to reach compliance for nitrogen dioxide.

And, he was also unimpressed with the Commission’s new package of air quality policies launched in December (see story), which he described as “anaemic”.

Euro 6

Mr Barrowcliffe said: “Will the EU’s legal action against the UK make a difference? This gets to the heart of the matter in my view. There is a reasonable basis for thinking that by around 2030 the Euro 6 [vehicle emissions standards] and subsequent standards will have brought compliance just about everywhere with nitrogen dioxide. It is clearly a problem that will be solved in time. It depends whether it is worth the EU spending more money to get there faster.”

He added that the next five years were “really crucial” for nitrogen dioxide emissions as “we will have a much clearer idea of whether the Euro 6 emission standards have delivered.”

However, he did have some sympathy for politicians in charge of air quality. He said: “Is government doing enough? Clearly not because if you define success as lowering concentrations fast enough to meet the limits then no one is doing enough. However, if you put yourself in their position what levers have you got to improve the situation?

“It takes political muscle to put in place LEZs. I think obviously it is clear to most people that you are not going to improve NOx and NO2 unless you really target road transport in cities and towns. Nothing else is really going to deliver. You don’t need to be in air quality management to understand that.”

Mr Barrowcliffe commented: “It will be interesting as we come towards the general election next year how this plays out, if at all, in the political arena.”

Green Party

Green Party MEP for South East England and air quality campaigner, Keith Taylor, had little sympathy for the UK government meanwhile.

Speaking to, he said: “I think what we have to remember is that the UK played their part in actually setting the standards back in the late 1990s. Since then they have not really improved things in any meaningful way, and that is a matter of very deep regret for the near 30,000 people a year who are dying because of poor air quality. We should not have set up the standards if we were not prepared to meet them.”

Asked whether he thought the legal action would help improve air quality in the UK, Mr Taylor said: “If the government won’t comply because it is the right thing to do, then perhaps they will if they face a £300 million fine each year.”

But, he added: “I do not want the EU to have to fine the UK, especially because the public have already paid the price in terms of health – it would add insult to injury.

“Quite how they want to discharge the fine I don’t know. There was talk of the fines being paid by the local council which would be totally irresponsible.”

London Assembly

London in particular was singled out as having the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions of any city in Europe, and is not expected to comply with EU standards until 2025 – 15 years later than the EU target of 2010.

Labour London Assembly member Murad Qureshi – who also chairs the Assembly’s health and environment committee – told that he thought at least a sizeable part of a possible EU fine would have to be paid by the Mayor of London, “whoever that will be at the time”.

He said: “I would much rather we responded to the public health issue than the fear of facing a £300 million fine. Air pollution is a silent killer of thousands of people and I would like to think that was the reason for dealing with this problem.”

Mr Qureshi said it could potentially be a big political issue at the upcoming EU elections in May 2014.

He said: “The right may say that this is unwarranted from the EU, while those on the left may welcome this environmental intervention. It could be seen as an issue of sovereignty, but the EU really has been leading the way on environmental issues for many years now.”