The EU Court of Justice (CJEU)’s ruling on the UK’s continued breaching of air quality limits “sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law”, according to the campaign group which brought the case, ClientEarth.
This morning (November 19 2014), the CJEU upheld ClientEarth’s case, ruling that the UK government can be ordered by national courts to draw up a plan to meet EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide as soon as possible (see airqualitynews.com story).
It is the CJEU’s first ever ruling over the European Union’s Air Quality Directive 2008, which establishes a set of legal limits and target dates for reducing air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide.
Under current government plans, the UK is not expected to meet these legal limits for nitrogen dioxide in three zones – Greater London, West Midlands and West Yorkshire urban areas – until after 2030. This is 20 years later than the original EU legal deadline.
Commenting on the ruling today, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews pointed to what he saw as important precedent set by the CJEU’s judgment, which potentially paves the way for future legal actions to enforce other statutory EU targets in Member States on air quality.
Mr Andrews, who is speaking at the National Air Quality Conference in London next week, said: “Thousands of people die because of air pollution every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the government to finally take this issue seriously. They will now have to come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes.
“This sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe. ClientEarth will spearhead these efforts to help people defend their right to clean air in court.”
The case will now return to the UK Supreme Court for a final ruling next year, when judges will apply the CJEU’s ruling to the facts in the UK case.
According to ClientEarth, this should see the UK Supreme Court ordering the government to take action to meet limits in a much shorter timeframe.
The campaign group said: “This plan would need to drastically cut pollution from diesel vehicles and could lead to policies like the London Mayor’s plans for an ‘ultra low emission zone’ being rolled out nationally.”
Responding to the ruling, Maria Eagle MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “This European Court of Justice judgement is a damning indictment of the Tory-led government’s total failure to tackle the UK’s air pollution.
“The government should now back Labour’s plans to deliver a national framework for low emission zones to enable local authorities to encourage cleaner, greener, less polluting vehicles to tackle this problem.”
Various politicians and campaigners have also reacted to the CJEU’s ruling today, with Green Party MEP for South East England Keith Taylor stating that the government “must now wake up on air pollution and start to take the issue seriously”.
Another MEP for South East England, Liberal Democrat Catherine Bearder, said that the CJEU ruling showed the importance of revising national limits under the EU’s proposed clean air package of measures, on which she describes herself as one of the lead negotiators.
Unveiled in December 2013, the European Commissions air quality package of proposals have been earmarked for review by the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (see airqualitynews.com story).
Catherine Bearder MEP commented: “Today’s ruling shows we need a radical new approach to tackling air pollution in Europe. On their own, local authorities will always find it difficult to comply with these limits as air pollution moves around Europe and does not respect national or regional boundaries.
“We need clearer and tougher national targets to ensure that coordinated, European action is taken to improve air quality and save lives. Mr Juncker’s desire to cut red tape cannot come at the expense of clean air for Europe’s citizens.”
European Environment Bureau
Environmental NGO the European Environment Bureau (EEB) also emphasised the importance of the clean air package proposals.
EEB policy officer for air quality, Arne Fellermann, said: “This ruling means that member states have to step up their efforts to tackle air pollution and address the all too common breaches of the air quality standards. It underlines the need for adoption of the Clean Air Package, which does not set stricter ambient air quality limits but would provide a stimulus to governments to take the steps needed to comply with the existing limits.”
Clean Air in London campaigner Simon Birkett also congratulated ClientEarth on the ruling, commenting today: “Massive ClientEarth air quality win! Citizens can demand action. UK court must insist on it.”
He also urged the government and the Mayor of London to “ban diesel exhaust from the most polluted places as coal was banned successfully 60 years ago. This is the most important action needed to protect public health and comply with NO2 limits values”.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth London campaigner Jenny Bates described UK’s air quality as a “national disgrace” adding that “tough measures are long overdue”.
Commenting on the ruling, she said: “This damning ruling should force the government and Mayor to take the urgent steps needed to clean up Britain’s filthy air, and help prevent many of the tens of thousands of premature deaths every year caused by pollution.”