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3rd Feb 2023

Courts can order EU governments to do more for clean air

  • The largest concentration of nitrogen dioxide was detected by a monitoring station in London (Photo: Adolfo PM)

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom should take “any necessary measure” to make sure the British government speeds up improvement of the country's air quality, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday (19 November).

The ruling is a victory for the environmental NGO ClientEarth, which had sued the UK for not doing enough to tackle air pollution.

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It is the first decision by the EU Court on the implementation of the 2008 air quality directive, which put a limit on the concentration of certain pollutants in the air.

It clarifies that national courts have the competence to force governments to comply with the directive and thus may strengthen demands by environmental groups all across the EU that politicians do more to improve air quality.

The ruling came on the same day that the European Environment Agency (EEA) published its annual report on air pollution.

It concluded European “air is cleaner today than two decades ago. However ... Europe is still far from achieving levels of air quality that do not result in unacceptable risks to humans and the environment”.

One of the pollutants that EU policies aim to limit is nitrogen dioxide.

According to the EEA report, the transport sector - burning petrol or diesel in car engines - is responsible for almost half of the nitrogen dioxide emissions in 2012.

In the United Kingdom, almost 19 percent of the population had been exposed that year to nitrogen dioxide values above the allowed limit.

It was already known that the UK had failed to sufficiently decrease the amount of nitrogen dioxide in almost all of its territory by 1 January 2010, a deadline set under the air quality directive.

The directive divided the UK in 43 geographical zones and Britain missed the deadline in 40 of those zones.

Under the rules, member states may ask the European Commission for a postponement of the deadline, if they provide a plan on how it will reach its target.

The UK had requested a deadline extension for 24 of its zones.

On the remaining 16 zones, including Greater London, the UK asked for no lenience, but just announced it had prepared air quality plans that are expected to lead to achievement of the targets between 2015 and 2025.

The environmental group ClientEarth took its case against the UK up to the country's Supreme Court, because, it argues, the government plans are not aiming to reduce nitrogen dioxides in the “shortest time possible”, as EU rules require.

The UK Supreme Court then asked the EU court for an opinion, which it delivered its verdict on Wednesday morning.

The EU court said that whether a member state has asked for a deadline extension or not, if a member state missed its deadline, it is “required to establish an air quality plan that sets out appropriate measures so that the period during which the limit values are exceeded can be kept as short as possible”.

If member states fail to do so, “it is for the competent national court, should a case be brought before it, to take ... any necessary measure, such as an order in the appropriate terms” to ensure the relevant government authority establishes an air quality plan.

In a press release, ClientEarth called the ruling “a big victory for the millions of people who want to live healthy lives in the UK’s towns and cities”.

It also said air pollution annually causes premature deaths for around 29,000 people in the UK.

Although the EEA signalled a “clear decreasing trend in NO2 concentrations over the last decade in most European countries”, 21 percent of the over 1,200 measurement stations in Europe found a concentration higher than the maximum allowed value.

Those stations are located in 20 of the EU's 28 member stations.

The largest annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide was detected by a monitoring station in London.

The station on Marylebone Road, opposite wax museum Madame Tussauds, recorded an annual mean concentration of 94 micrograms per cubic meter air, more than double the cap of 40.

The EEA is most worried about two other pollutants: particulate matter and ground-level ozone.

It estimated that high concentrations of these pollutants were responsible for about 446,160 premature deaths in the EU in 2011.

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