Client Earth
2 May 2013

UK Government not doing enough to address air pollution

Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK, more than obesity and alcohol combined.

The Supreme Court has declared that the Government is failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution. This landmark decision in ClientEarth’s case is a departure from the judgments of the lower courts and paves the way for the European Commission to take legal action against the UK.

Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK, more than obesity and alcohol combined. Air pollution causes heart attacks, strokes, respiratory disease and children living near busy roads have been shown to grow up with underdeveloped lungs.

ClientEarth’s case concerns 16 cities and regions (including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow) which government plans show will suffer from illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas, until as late as 2020 or 2025.

The Supreme Court confirmed that because the Government is in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”. However, before deciding whether to take further action to enforce the law, it has referred a number of legal questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO, said: “This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson. Faced with court action on two fronts, he must now come up with an ambitious plan to protect people from carcinogenic diesel fumes. Until now, his only policy has been lobbying in Europe to try and weaken air pollution laws.”

“The Supreme Court recognised that this case has broader implications for EU environmental law: The Government can’t flout environmental law with impunity. If the Government breaks the law, citizens can demand justice and the courts must act.”

To hear more from Alan Andrews look out for his article in the forthcoming edition of the environmental SCIENTIST.

Analysis from the archive