UK is one of five countries persistently contravening legal nitrogen dioxide levels with pollution from factories and vehicles
Britain has been sent a final warning to comply with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or face a case at the European court of justice.
If the UK does not show Brussels how it intends to comply with EU law within two months, a court hearing with the power to impose heavy fines could begin later this year, as the Guardian revealed last week.
Seb Dance MEP, the Labour party’s environmental lead in the European parliament, told the Guardian: “Thousands of lives are lost each year yet the British government simply sits on its hands and does nothing. If the threat of hefty fines and legal action is not enough, then what on earth will compel the government to act when we leave the EU?”
The Liberal MEP and environment committee member Catherine Bearder, said: “Lesser mortals have to face the long arm of the law, why shouldn’t the government? We know that London has been busting the regulations for years and that means there are people dead who shouldn’t be. Real lives are being damaged here, because the government won’t implement the law that its ministers willingly signed up to.”
The European commission has sent a ‘final warning’ to the UK for failing to address repeated breaches of legal air pollution limits in 16 areas
About 50,000 Britons die prematurely each year from respiratory, cardiovascular and other illnesses associated with pollutants such as NO2, particulate matter (PM) and ozone.
The public health costs have been estimated at £20bn a year, with 6m working days lost each year as a result of the externalised costs of polluting emissions.
London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds are among the 16 zones where air quality thresholds were found by the EU to have been repeatedly breached.
Keith Taylor, the green MEP for the south-east region, where studies attribute around 5% of all deaths to particulate air pollution, described the final warning as “a shameful indictment of the Conservatives’ irresponsible and deadly apathy.”
“The failure highlighted by the European commission is as much moral as it is legal,” he added. “Ministers have displayed an extremely concerning attitude of indifference towards their duty to safeguard the health of British citizens.”
Outdoor air pollution is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and factories, and could be dramatically curbed by reducing traffic, switching to electric cars, and using cleaner power, in line with commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
Four other EU states – Germany, Italy, France and Spain – were served with final warnings on Wednesday. In all, air pollution limits are being flouted in 23 out of the EU’s 28 countries and 130 of its cities.
The UK has been at the forefront of resistance to laws aimed at curbing air pollution deaths, and in violation of the EU’s NO2 limit since 2010. Parts of London overshot the annual air pollution limit for the whole of 2017 in the first five days of the year.
A referral to the European court is not inevitable and penalties may depend on mitigating factors, such as steps being taken to align with EU law.
But if the UK does not satisfy the European commission that it is acting to reduce its emissions, it could face a lump sum fine, a penalty payment, daily five-figure fines, or a combination of these.
Officials say the UK will be bound by the judgements of the European court in Luxembourg for as long as it remains a member of the EU.
James Thornton, the CEO of the green law group ClientEarth, said: “With this final warning from the commission, the government is under pressure from all sides to stop dithering and act decisively to meet its moral and legal obligations to clean up our unhealthy air.”
ClientEarth won a high court victory against the government last November forcing ministers to produce draft plans by 24 April to clean up the UK’s choking urban streets and lanes as soon as possible.
That plan may now be the UK’s best last chance of avoiding a scramble to the EU’s exit under fire. Bearder said that any government attempts to use Brexit as an excuse for inaction would be “a cop out” after Andrea Leadsom’s partial pledge to transpose EU environmental legislation into UK law before it leaves the bloc.
Bearder told the Guardian: “The government may say we are not bound by the European courts anymore, and therefore we don’t need to do anything. But people are dying daily and the government has a duty to look after its citizens. In or out, we still need clean air.”
A government spokesperson said that the government was committed to improving national air quality and had committed more than £2bn to increasing the uptake of ultra-low emitting vehicles since 2011, as well as supporting green transport schemes and a new programme of clean air zones.
“In the Autumn Statement, we announced a further £290m to support electric vehicles, low emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels,” the official said. “We will update our air quality plans in the spring to further improve the nation’s air quality.”
Much will hinge on whether the plans do enough to meet the UK’s obligations under EU law.
Enrico Brivio, a spokesman for the environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, described today’s moves from Brussels as “a warning that we send to member states asking [them] to comply, to take measures to fight this poor air quality that provokes respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. It is an important factor on the health of citizens.
“We ask the UK, as the other four member states, to take appropriate measures to fight this type of air pollution and we hope they comply.”
The Conservative MEP Julie Girling, said: “The fact that five major European member states have been taken to task shows that this is not only a challenge for British central and local government. Air pollution is a problem that we face across the western world, and its consequences for public health and for NHS budgets are significant.”