Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for South East England, has called for the European Commission to take tough action on the UK for exceeding EU air pollution limits. Following last week’s ruling at the High Court which declared that it was the responsibility of the European Commission to hold the UK to account for its failure to meet air pollution limits he has written to Environment Commissioner Potočnik.
In the case against the government brought to the High Court by the environmental NGO, ClientEarth, the government was forced to concede that they are failing to meet their legal obligations to keep air pollution within EU limits. The court also ruled it was a matter for the European Commission, rather than the UK government, to pursue. In light of this ruling Keith this week asked the Commissioner what steps the European Commission is taking to ensure that the UK government addresses breaches of air pollution limits.
The British government has applied to the European Commission for the deadline to meet Nitrogen Dioxide levels to be extended from 2010 to 2015, the latest possible date for compliance with EU law. However the government’s recently published air quality plans for 17 regions and cities recognise that the UK will not achieve the legal limits for air quality until well after 2015.
In the case at the High Court ClientEarth drew attention to the fact that the Secretary of State is under a duty to ensure that levels of air pollution in the UK comply with limits set by EU law. Where these limits are exceeded, the Secretary of State must produce plans to ensure compliance as soon as possible. ClientEarth argued that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully by failing to fulfil her legal obligation to draw up plans which show how the UK would achieve legal compliance throughout the UK by 2015.
Keith said: “The fact that the UK government readily admits that it is planning to miss even the extended 2015 deadline makes a mockery of its legal commitment to comply with air pollution limits and demonstrates that it is not serious about tackling this growing invisible public health crisis. The UK’s continued breach of EU air pollution limits shows a shocking abdication of responsibility for health protection. Air pollution adversely affects poorer people who live in very built up areas, those who already have heart problems and asthma as well as children whose lung capacity is being permanently damaged.
He continued: “As the court ruled that this is now a matter for the European Commission to pursue I’ve called on the Commissioner to follow up this issue with the British government as a matter of urgency. He must demand that it takes immediate action to improve plans so that these show how they will comply with the pollution limits by January 2015 at the very latest.”
In the UK air pollution causes 29,000 deaths and contributes to 200,000 premature deaths every year. Under the EU Air Quality Directive the UK should have achieved reduced levels of the pollutant Nitrogen Dioxide by 1st January 2010. These targets have been missed in 40 out of the 43 air quality zones in the UK.
The British government’s Environmental Audit Committee recently released a damning report on the government’s failure to meet air pollution targets. It notes that the UK has been in breach of EU rules since 2005 and questions whether the government is serious about tackling air pollution. The UK last reported to the EU on air pollution 18 months ago, but the Environmental Audit Committee report says that since then there has been ‘no meaningful evidence’ to suggest progress towards meeting the EU standards.