Top court rules UK has broken air pollution law
Further Clean Air Zones could be on the cards after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled today that the UK has broken European air pollution laws.
The CJEU said the UK has “systematically and persistently” exceeded legal limits for dangerous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since 2010, despite warnings from the European Commission.
This could see the UK facing fines if it still fails to take action to comply.
ClientEarth said the ruling relates to failures that have also been the subject of successful legal challenges that its environmental lawyers have brought against the UK government in the domestic courts since 2011.
It added that while the ruling comes from a European court, it remains in national law in the UK, despite Brexit.
Katie Nield, lawyer at the environmental law charity, said: “The UK government is still bound by these rules and our own domestic courts have repeatedly found that ministers have been flouting them ever since they came into force.
“The Government has been dragging its feet for too long on the air pollution crisis, downplaying the problem and passing the buck to local authorities.”
Following today’s ruling, if the UK then still fails to comply within a reasonable period, the European Commission could issue a letter of formal notice requiring the UK to remedy the situation. If the UK fails to do so, the Commission could bring the matter before the CJEU a second time, seeking to have financial penalties imposed, although there remains some uncertainty whether it will have the power or the inclination to do this, now the UK is no longer part of the EU.
ClientEarth said evidence shows that Clean Air Zones are the most effective solution to tackle harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution quickly, out of the most polluted parts of town, are the most effective solution – it had spoken out last year when councils had put the brakes on the imminent introduction of such schemes due to concerns over the impact on drivers and businesses already hard-hit by the pandemic. Since then, Bath and Birmingham have said they will start Clean Air Zones – in the case of Bath, from 15 March 2021 – while Bristol said last week its CAZ will launch from October 2021.
“It’s up to the UK government to work with local leaders to make sure these schemes are put in place as quickly as possible, alongside help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport,” added Katie Nield. “Whilst authorities dither and delay on action to get the most polluting vehicles out of our towns and cities, people’s lives are being ruined by toxic air.”
The infringement procedure against the UK started before the UK left the EU. The proposed Office for Environmental Protection will be the new domestic institution holding the UK government accountable if it breaches its environmental responsibilities. But this watchdog, proposed in the Environment Bill, is being weakened before it even becomes law.
Nield added: “The UK government has said that Brexit is an opportunity to take back control and to develop “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. There is now a clear opportunity to not only establish stronger laws protecting people’s health and the environment, such as putting World Health Organization air quality guidelines into the Environment Bill – but also to create a strong oversight and enforcement body that will ensure those laws are complied with. However, there are big question marks as to whether the proposed Office for Environmental Protection will have the independence, authority and resources to secure genuine improvements in environmental and public health standards.”