On 20 February the Commission announced the legal action, which is for breaching limits for nitrogen dioxide in 16 of 43 zones in the country and failing to reduce concentrations by the 2010 deadline. The UK faces potential EU fines of up to £300 million for every year that it fails to comply with the air quality standards.
The principal culprit for NO2 air pollution is believed to be emissions from diesel vehicles.
While other European countries have also failed to fulfil their obligations under the EU Air Quality Directive – in force since 2008 – the UK appears to have been somewhat singled out for what EU environment commissioner Janez Potonik termed its “persistent” breaches.
Following the announcement, questions were also raised by air quality experts over who might be liable to pay the fine: The UK Government or local authorities. Local Air Quality Management Legislation puts some of the onus for compliance on local authorities, suggested Roger Barrowcliffe of the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM), speaking to Air Quality News.
The impetus for the legal action seems to have come from the UK Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2013, that the Government had failed in its duty to meet EU limits. That case was brought against it by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, and was a landmark ruling for NGOs looking to use legal action to bring pressure to bear on governments.
ClientEarth lawyer James Thornton has said he hopes the latest action will bring an end to a “national scandal” that causes tens of thousands of people to die prematurely every year.
A particular trouble zone for air pollution in the UK is London, identified as having the highest NO2 emissions levels of any city in Europe. Other areas in breach of the limits include the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, and Glasgow.
While other British cities have committed to reducing their traffic fumes to within legal limits by 2020, London has said it will be unable to meet its NO2 targets until 2025 at the earliest.