Defra has argued its measures to tackle NO2 emissions are based on â€˜best available evidenceâ€™ – after the High Court ruled the department must scrap its Air Quality Plan today (2 November).
Reacting to the courtâ€™s decision, the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it had always been clear it was ready to update its plans â€˜if necessaryâ€™ to meet EU limits on NO2 emissions by 2020.
It is the second time Defra has been ordered to redraft its Air Quality Plan in 18 months, after the Supreme Court ruled its previous version was inadequate to meeting the EU Directive in April 2015.
Both legal challenges were brought by NGO ClientEarth, which in its latest case argued Defraâ€™s revised Plan took â€˜minimum stepsâ€™ to comply with European legislation on air quality.
Commenting on todayâ€™s outcome, Defra said it was â€˜carefully consideringâ€™ the ruling, and its next steps, in detail.
A Defra spokesperson said: â€œImproving air quality is a priority for this government and we are determined to cut harmful emissions.
â€œOur plans have always followed the best available evidenceÂ – we have always been clear that we are ready to update them if necessary and have been at the forefront of action in Europe to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.
â€œWhilst our huge investment in green transport initiatives and plans to introduce Clean Air Zones around the country will help tackle this problem, we accept the courtâ€™s judgment.â€
Speaking to airqualitynews.com after todayâ€™s ruling, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said he believed Defra did not intend to appeal the High Courtâ€™s decision.
He added: â€œWe are absolutely delighted, itâ€™s vindicated our opinion all along that these plans were wholly inadequate and illegal. The government were doing the bare minimum to reduce emissions by 2020.â€
Mr Andrews went on to explain Defra would be required to prepare an updated Air Quality Plan, and ClientEarth would be negotiating the timetable for this over the course of the next seven days.
He said he expected the new Plan could impose Clean Air Zones on up to â€œ15 or 20â€ towns and cities through â€œproperâ€ real-world emissions modelling and suggested Defra would have to consider excluding polluting buses and vans in these areas.
Asked about Defraâ€™s continued involvement in drafting the plans, Mr Andrews replied: â€œWe want to see Theresa May take the lead on this.â€
Elsewhere, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan â€“ an interested party in the High Court case â€“ welcomed the ruling, describing it as a â€˜wake-up callâ€™ to government.
Mr Khan recently announced the second phase of his consultation on air quality measures for London, including a T-charge for older polluting diesel vehicles in the Congestion Charging Zone from 2017 and the potential introduction of an Ultra-Low Emission Zone for the city in 2019.
The Mayor said: â€œTodayâ€™s High Court ruling brings sharply into focus the scale of the countryâ€™s air pollution crisis and lays the blame at the door of the government for its complacency in failing to tackle the problem quickly and credibly. In so doing they have let down millions of people the length and breadth of the country.â€
He added: â€œI am calling for the governmentâ€™s revised package of measures to include funding a national diesel scrappage scheme to take the most polluting vehicles off our roads and an overhaul of vehicle excise duty to incentivise the buying of the cleanest vehicles, as well as powers to tackle non-road sources of NO2, including from construction. The government needs to take urgent action to achieve legal air quality limits, reduce harmful emissions and protect public health.â€