Supreme Court calls for swift action to be taken on the UK’s air quality breaches in an order dated July 16
A case brought against the government for failing to meet EU air quality limits could be heard in Luxembourg by the end of the year, after British judges requested it be fast-tracked.
In an order dated Tuesday (July 16), the Supreme Court asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to provide guidance on what action should be taken “quicklyâ€?. In normal circumstances, it is not uncommon for responses to take up to 18 months.
However a spokesman for the ECJ said he had no indication the case had been submitted, but believed it could still arrive from the European Commission in a matter of days.
The Supreme Court, which ruled on May 1 the UK was failing its legal duty to tackle air pollution, referred the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) as it raised “difficult issuesâ€? involving European law (see airqualitynews story).
On May 2, a European Commission spokesman said there was a “strong chanceâ€? the UK could face enforcement action over the air quality breaches, which may result in multi-million pound fines (see airqualitynews story). If the Commission does take action, it remains unclear whether it will do so collectively against a number of member states or the UK alone.
The claim that the case could be heard as early as 2013 was made by ClientEarth, who brought the original case to the UK’s Supreme Court in 2011.
The campaign group’s chief executive James Thornton described the May decision as a “historic rulingâ€? and hoped the added pressure would force Environment minister Owen Paterson to reconsider the government’s stance.
He said: “Faced with court action on two fronts, he [Owen Paterson] 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.â€?
Of the 43 air quality zones in Britain, 40 exceeded the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits they were supposed to meet by 2010. The last possible extension for this deadline is 2015.
Meanwhile current government plans mean 16 out of 43 areas or zones in the UK are not due to meet EU legal limits for NO2 until 2020, while Greater London is not expected to meet these limits until 2025.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were not available for comment, but in a May statement said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants.â€?