After years of warnings from the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled today that the UK has ‘systematically and persistently’ exceeded legal limits for dangerous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since 2010.
Today’s ruling relates to failures that have also been the subject of successful legal challenges that ClientEarth has brought against the UK government in the domestic courts since 2011.
Following today’s ruling, if the UK continues to fail to comply within a reasonable period, the European Commission could issue a letter of formal notice requiring the UK to remedy the situation.
If the UK fails to do so, the Commission could bring the matter before the CJEU a second time, seeking to have financial penalties imposed, although there remains some uncertainty whether it will have the power to do this, now the UK is no longer part of the EU.
The infringement procedure against the UK started before the UK left the EU. The proposed Office for Environmental Protection will be the new domestic institution holding the UK government accountable if it breaches its environmental responsibilities. But this watchdog, proposed in the Environment Bill, is being weakened before it even becomes law.
Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: ‘It’s no secret that successive UK governments have been leaving us exposed to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution for over a decade now.
‘This ruling comes from a European court, but Brexit or no Brexit, these pollution limits remain in national law. The UK government is still bound by these rules and our own domestic courts have repeatedly found that ministers have been flouting them ever since they came into force.
‘The government has been dragging its feet for too long on the air pollution crisis, downplaying the problem and passing the buck to local authorities. To tackle harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution quickly, the evidence clearly shows that Clean Air Zones, which are designed to keep the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted parts of town, are the most effective solution.
‘The UK government has said that Brexit is an opportunity to take back control and to develop “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earthâ€?. There is now a clear opportunity to not only establish stronger laws protecting people’s health and the environment, such as putting World Health Organization air quality guidelines into the Environment Bill – but also to create a strong oversight and enforcement body that will ensure those laws are complied with. However, there are big question marks as to whether the proposed Office for Environmental Protection will have the independence, authority and resources to secure genuine improvements in environmental and public health standards.â€?
“It’s up to the UK Government to work with local leaders to make sure these schemes are put in place as quickly as possible, alongside help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport. Whilst authorities dither and delay on action to get the most polluting vehicles out of our towns and cities, people’s lives are being ruined by toxic air.â€?