The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) today confirmed that the UK has consistently exceeded legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution since 2010.
Further failure to take action on air pollution might see the UK paying large fines, but there is uncertainty over whether the UK would have to face charges now that it has left the EU, legal experts said.
Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental charity law ClientEarth, said: “It’s no secret that successive UK governments have been leaving us exposed to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution for over a decade now.
“This ruling comes from a European court, but Brexit or no Brexit, these pollution limits remain in national law. The UK government is still bound by these rules and our own domestic courts have repeatedly found that ministers have been flouting them ever since they came into force.”
The news comes just months after a UK coroner court found that illegal levels of air pollution contributed to the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old from south London.
Ella, who died in 2013 following a severe asthma attack, is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed on her death certificate.
She lived around 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south London. Fumes from petrol and diesel vehicles are a major driver of NO2 pollution, and experts found that the South Circular regularly exceeded legal limits for pollution between 2006 and 2010.
If the UK fails to adequately respond to the ruling, the European Commission could bring the matter to court a second time and seek to have financial penalties imposed, ClientEarth said.
However, it is not known whether the European Commission would have the “power or inclination” to do this now that the UK has left the EU.
Ms Nield added: “The government has been dragging its feet for too long on the air pollution crisis, downplaying the problem and passing the buck to local authorities.
“To tackle harmful NO2 pollution quickly, the evidence clearly shows that Clean Air Zones, which are designed to keep the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted parts of town, are the most effective solution.
“It’s up to the UK government to work with local leaders to make sure these schemes are put in place as quickly as possible, alongside help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport.”
In response to the ruling, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are considering this judgment from the European Court of Justice.
“We continue to work at pace to deliver our ambitious NO2 Plan and our 2019 Clean Air Strategy, which was praised by the WHO [World Health Organization] as ‘an example for the rest of the world to follow’.
“Air pollution at a national level has reduced significantly since 2010, and now we are out of the EU we are continuing to deliver our £3.8bn air quality plan to tackle NO2 exceedances in the shortest possible time.”