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Campaigners from Friends of the Earth Scotland gather on Nicolson Street, Edinburgh on 25th August 2015 to demand clean air after the zone failed to meet Scottish Air Quality Safety Standards. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland via Flickr (CC BY).
Campaigners from Friends of the Earth Scotland gather on Nicolson Street, Edinburgh on 25th August 2015 to demand clean air after the zone failed to meet Scottish Air Quality Safety Standards. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland via Flickr (CC BY).
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Government faces new legal action over UK's deadly air pollution

Oliver Tickell

14th September 2015

The UK government's response to the Supreme Court's order to clean up air quality in key urban areas has been condemened as vague, weak and slow, lacking in clear targets and compulsory measures. New figures reveal that over 50,000 people a year are being killed by air pollution.

The Supreme Court demanded 'immediate action' to address Britain's air quality crisis. Five months later we've got another list of meaningless assurances and half-measures. This simply isn't good enough.

Government ministers are facing the threat of new court action over their failure to tackle air pollution levels causing tens of thousands of deaths every year.

After a five-year legal battle by ClientEarth, the UK Supreme Court ruled in April that the Government must take immediate action to cut air pollution levels.

This followed an earlier ruling by the European Court of Justice last November that said the government was in "ongoing breach" of EU law on air quality and threatened huge fines if the government's inaction continued.

But a response to the ruling by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – slipped out on Saturday morning just as the media were all focussed on the Labour leadership election results - failed to make any firm commitments to tackling the problem, according to ClientEarth, which originally took the government to court.

"The Supreme Court demanded 'immediate action' to address Britain's air quality crisis. Five months later we've got another list of meaningless assurances and half-measures", said ClientEarth Lawyer Alan Andrews.

"We will continue to do everything we can to force the Government to come up with a lawful plan, including returning to Court to force them to think again."

Relaxed timetable

While the measures proposed by the government aim to deliver "in the shortest possible time", in fact the the target date for most areas is 2020 - a full five years away - and for London it is five years later.

"The Supreme Court ordered Liz Truss to come up with a plan to achieve legal levels of air quality as soon as possible", said Andrews. "Instead, even under the Government's own projections, many cities in the UK will still have illegal levels of diesel fumes until 2020 and beyond.

"In London the problem is even worse - Defra projections say the legal levels of air pollution will not be reached until 2025.

But the most serious problem is that delivery of the pollution cuts depends on a range of aspirational measures such as the electrification of the UK's vehicle fleet and the switch to ultra-low emissions vehicles. And the rate of switch-over to electric cars is pitifully slow - currently running at around 3% of new vehicle registrations.

Meanwhile the government's recent changes to road tax in the 2015 summer budget can only dent buyers' confidence that electric cars will retain their special tax status.

While zero-emission vehicles and electric cars continue to pay no tax, low emission vehicles have lost key tax privilages and now have to pay ordinary road tax after they have been on the road for a year. No new inventives for green cars were put in place.

'Clean air zones' left to local government

The plans do contain one altogether new national policy measure: the introduction of 'clean air zones' which would restrict the oldest and dirtiest vehicles entering the most polluted city centres.

Eight zones will not meet legal limits until after 2020 unless a clean air zone is introduced, according to the government document: Greater London Urban Area; Eastern; East Midlands; Nottingham Urban Area; Southampton Urban Area; South Wales; West Midlands Urban Area; West Yorkshire Urban Area.

However the implementation of the policy will not be mandatory - instead it will be carried out by "overstretched and underfunded" local authorities at their discretion, complains Andrews. "We therefore don't have any idea if or when these clean air zones will ever materialise.

"This simply isn't good enough. It isn't good enough for ClientEarth, it won't be good enough for the Courts. Most importantly, it isn't good enough for the tens of thousands of people who this Government is prepared to let die or be made seriously ill by being forced to breathe polluted air.

Emphasising the urgency of action, Defra's document also reveals that air pollution is thought to kill many more people in the UK than earlier estimates of 29,000 - taking the number of deaths to more than 50,000 per year:

"The evidence associating NO2 with health effects has strengthened substantially in recent years as notedby the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. It is estimated that the effects of NO2 on mortality are equivalent to 23,500 deaths annually in the UK.

"Many of the sources of NOx (NO2 and NO) are also sources of particulate matter (PM). The impact of exposure to particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) is estimated to have an effect on mortality equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths in the UK. The combined impact of these two pollutants represents a significant public health challenge."

 


 

Consultation: see Defra's full set of consultation documents and the Supreme Court's order of April 2015.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

 

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