A case brought against the government to force it to take action on air quality was heard by the UK Supreme Court of Justice in London yesterday (March 7).
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) faced accusations from environmental campaigners ClientEarth that it has failed to put sufficient measures in place to comply with EU air pollution limits at the day-long appeal hearing.
If ClientEarth’s appeal is successful, Defra could eventually be forced to publish more stringent plans to meet EU air quality targets for 2015.
It is not known when a final judgement will be made on the case, but ClientEarth’s Alan Andrews said he was “hopeful” that it would be handed down before Easter and that there was a “distinct possibility” that the case could be referred to the European Court of Justice.
Speaking after yesterday’s hearing, Mr Andrews said: “I felt it went well, but it is always difficult to get inside the heads of the judges. They certainly grasped the gravity of the case they were handling and its constitutional implications. Our barrister did an amazing job and I feel we have done everything we can.”
ClientEarth’s appeal was led by Dinah Rose QC with assistance from Ben Jaffey and Emma Dixon, while Defra’s case was led by Kassie Smith QC.
Mr Andrews said: “The Judges were clearly convinced of the serious health implications of allowing air pollution to continue unabated. It was also apparent that the case raised a fundamental question about the rule of law. If the Supreme Court is unable to give an effective remedy to a clear and admitted breach of EU environmental law, there are grave constitutional consequences. There is now the distinct possibility that this will be referred to the European Court of Justice.”
He added: “Judgement has been reserved and we are hopeful this will be handed down before Easter.”
The case was presided over by Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Mance of Frognal, Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony, Lord Sumption and Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill. Defra did not issue any comment after the hearing and is awaiting the judgement.
However, speaking ahead of the hearing, a Defra spokeswoman had said: “The UK’s air quality plans on nitrogen dioxide are being challenged this week by Client Earth in the Supreme Court, having been upheld in the High Court and Court of Appeal.
“Our air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and most of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants. Our plans for nitrogen dioxide set out all the important work being done to meet EU standards in the shortest possible time.”
ClientEarth brought the case to the Supreme Court after losing a similar bid at the High Court to force the government to impose more stringent air quality measures in July 2012 (see airqualitynews.com story).
Under the 2008 EU Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC), targets to reduce key air pollutants including nitrogen dioxide and particular matter PM10 need to be met by 2015.
However, several regions and cities in the UK will not meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide until 2020 under the government’s current plans, and the government did not establish more stringent plans in order to apply for an extension beyond 2015.
In June 2011, Defra published draft air quality plans for public consultation. The draft overview statement said that of the 40 zones which exceeded EU limits, compliance may be achieved by 2015 in 23 zones. Meanwhile, 16 zones are expected to achieve compliance between 2015 and 2020, and compliance in London is expected to be achieved before 2025.