UK facing pollution ruling action
Campaigners have hailed a European court ruling which is set to force the UK Government to take urgent action on air pollution that causes thousands of early deaths each year.
The UK breached European Union (EU) limits for nitrogen dioxide - a pollutant from vehicles and power stations which causes breathing and heart problems - in 40 of 43 areas of the country in 2010.
Under plans drawn up by the UK to meet the Air Quality Directive rules, 16 areas including Greater London, Greater Manchester, Glasgow and the West Midlands would not even meet the pollution limits by a potential extended deadline of 2015.
The ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that the UK was in breach of EU law and should have created plans to tackle air pollution in those areas by January 1, 2015, at the latest.
The UK courts should order the Government to establish plans to cut nitrogen dioxide pollution as soon as possible, the ECJ said.
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who brought the case , said the ruling meant the UK's Supreme Court must order the Government to take action to meet the legal limits in a much shorter timeframe.
Under existing plans, some areas such as London, Birmingham and Leeds would not meet the pollution limits until 2030, 20 years after the original deadline of 2010, ClientEarth said.
Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer, said the latest information from the Environment Department (Defra) also showed dozens of towns and cities would fail to meet the 2015 extended deadline.
Efforts to reduce air pollution, which leads to an estimated 29,000 people dying early each year, is likely to require drastically cutting emissions from diesel vehicles and rolling out London's planned "ultra low emissions zone" to cities across the country.
Mr Andrews said: "Thousands of people die because of air pollution every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the Government to finally take this issue seriously.
"This sets a ground-breaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe. ClientEarth will spearhead these efforts to help people defend their right to clean air in court."
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said "This European Court of Justice judgement is a damning indictment of the Tory-led Government's total failure to tackle the UK's air pollution.
"Air pollution is a serious public health issue facing our towns and cities, tens of thousands of lives are lost each year and yet David Cameron's government has done nothing to solve the problem.
"The European Court of Justice has now demanded that the UK take urgent action to address dangerous levels of air pollution.
"The Government should now back Labour's plans to deliver a national framework for low emission zones to enable local authorities to encourage cleaner, greener, less-polluting vehicles to tackle this problem."
The ruling came as the European Environment Agency published its latest annual air quality report, which showed that almost all city dwellers across Europe were exposed to pollutants at levels considered to be unsafe by the World Health Organisation.
The main sources of pollution were particulate matter and ground level ozone but while most air pollutants had declined over the last decade, nitrogen dioxide levels had not fallen as fast as expected, the report said.
In the UK, almost a fifth of people living in urban areas were exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels up to 50% above EU limits over the year in 2012, the EEA report said.
ClientEarth's legal case refers to 16 areas where nitrogen dioxide levels are being breached: West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester Urban Area, West Yorkshire, Teesside, The Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, Eastern England, South East England, East Midlands, North West and Merseyside, Yorkshire and Humberside, West Midlands, North East England and Greater London Urban Area.
Green Party London Assembly Member Jenny Jones said the ruling was "great news for Londoners' health" and called for action on air pollution by London Mayor Boris Johnson.
She said: "This judgement shatters the mayor's complacency on air pollution. The mayor must urgently rewrite his strategy and reinstate emergency measures to bring pollution down from its dangerous and illegal levels."
Friends of the Earth Campaigner Jenny Bates said: "This ruling should force the Government to take the urgent steps needed to clean up Britain's filthy air and help prevent many of the tens of thousands of premature deaths every year caused by air pollution.
"The young, elderly and those with existing health problems are especially at risk.
"Action on road traffic, the main cause of air pollution, is essential to end this health scandal - far more must be done to clean up our vehicles and cut traffic levels.
"Investment in alternatives to car travel are also needed, such as cheap and efficient public transport and making it safer and easier for people to get around on their bikes.
"UK air quality is a national disgrace - tough measures are long overdue."
Maura Gillespie, of the British Heart Foundation, said: "This judgement means the UK Government is finally being held to account for their breach of air pollution limits.
"Breathing certain pollutants is proven to exacerbate existing heart conditions and put vulnerable people at greater risk of a heart attack.
"The public expect the air we breathe to be safe. Officials must act now to improve the quality of the air we breathe."
Chairwoman of the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley said: "Parliament's green watchdog has been warning the Government for the last four years that it must tackle the public health crisis being caused by heavy traffic in our towns and cities.
"Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people living or working near busy roads, however, ministers have complacently carried on with business as usual and put off serious efforts to deal with the problem for another decade.
"It is not acceptable for ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breath clean air.
"Children's development and people's lives are at risk right now; we need urgent action to get the most polluting vehicles off our streets and get more people walking, cycling and taking public transport."