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Supreme Court Warns on Air Quality Action

May 2, 2013
Environmental Protection

Breaches of European air quality standards could lead to ministers facing immediate legal action, that’s the warning given by five supreme court judges this week. Britain’s highest appeal court ruled that the government had failed to comply with EU directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality. Nitrogen dioxide levels in London are the highest of any European capital while major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow regularly breach air quality standards.

The directive gave those member states that were unable to achieve limit values for NO2 by 1 January 2010 a five year extension provided they set out plans of how they intend to meet targets by January 2015. No plans have been submitted by the UK Government so far leading the court to conclude that “the way is open to immediate ­enforcement action at national or European level.”

Across the UK poor air quality is estimated to cause 29,000 early deaths each year largely from respiratory and circulatory diseases. The size of the problem has not been fully understood by the public as BBC One’s “Bang Goes The Theory” demonstrated recently. A poll of viewers discovered that perceptions of the number of deaths from poor air quality put it below road accidents and obesity in many people’s eyes. The stark reality is that deaths from poor air quality are second behind smoking as the nation’s prominent Public Health issue.

There are currently 601 Air Quality Management Areas shown on DEFRA’s website, the vast majority of which relate to Nitrogen dioxide levels. The ruling will increase the pressure on London Mayor Boris Johnson to extend the current congestion zone, while other major cities may now have to consider congestion charging and other methods to reduce levels. No action is planned by the European Commission in the immediate future but as a spokesman pointed out that situation could change at any time. He concluded, “It has not been done yet because we’re working through a number of countries because it’s easier to bring one horizontal action (against them all)”.       

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