UK taken to Europe’s highest court over air pollution

European court of justice can enforce multimillion euro penalties if the UK and five other countries do not address the problem

The UK and five other nations have been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal high levels of air pollution.

The European court of justice( ECJ) has the power to impose multimillion euro fines if the countries do not address the problem swiftly. The nations – the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania – had been given a final warning by the European commission in January. Toxic air results in more than 400,000 early deaths across Europe each year.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, largely produced by diesel vehicles, have been illegally high since 2010 in the vast majority of urban areas in the UK. The government’s latest plan in 2017 was denounced as ” woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors.

Ministers were forced by UK courts to improve the plan in February, after losing in the high court for the third time to environmental lawyers ClientEarth, and have until the end of 2018 applied by the stricter measures.

” We have waited a long time and we cannot perhaps wait any longer ,” told Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for surrounding.” We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale .”

The six member states had failed to deliver” believable, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution as soon as is practicable, as required under EU law”, a statement from the commission said. In contrast, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain delivered sufficient new measures after being given a final warning in January.

ClientEarth CEO, James Thornton, told:” On top of our three successful cases, today’s legal action from the European committee is more damning evidence of the mountain the UK government still has to climb to bring air pollution to within legal limits .”

The World Health Organisation’s director of public health, Dr Maria Neira, told new importance was need to tackle air pollution:” While air pollution knows no borders and sets everyone at risk, those most vulnerable- pregnant women, children, the elderly, those already ill or poor- are particularly affected .”

In the UK, Greenpeace’s Rosie Rogers said:” Ministers’ apathy on this issue in so far has been nothing short of a dereliction of duty.[ Environment secretary] Michael Gove should swiftly come up with a clear plan to tackle the diesel vehicles responsible for most roadside toxic pollution and an outright prohibit on the sale of petrol, diesel vehicles and vans from 2030.”

A spokesman for the UK environment department said:” We continue to meet EU air quality restrictions for all pollutants apart from NO2, and data depicts we are improving thanks to our efforts to bring high levels of NO2 down. We will shortly build on our PS3. 5bn plan to tackle roadside emissions with a comprehensive clean air strategy .”

Air pollution from NO2 causes an estimated 23,500 early deaths every year in the UK. The UN’s special rapporteur on pollution said in September that the UK government was ” flouting” its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens. The problem was declared a public health emergency by a cross-party committee of MPs in 2016.

The government’s own research shows clean air zones( CAZs ), in which vehicles are deterred from city centres by pollution charges, are by far the most effective solution to air pollution. But pastors refused to attain them compulsory, instead constructing them a voluntary and last-resort alternative for local authorities.

The European legal occurrence now moves to the ECJ, which will hold a hearing within months. If it proclaims the UK in breach of its legal responsibility, the UK gets a period of time to resolve the situation. If it does not, the court can then enforce large fines.

The UK is leaving the EU but it is currently unclear when the ECJ’s jurisdiction over the UK would aim, given the transition period already concurred. It is a risk that the UK will remain bound by ECJ decisions after Brexit, depending on the bargain reached.

Also on Thursday, in the continuing fall-out from the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal, the European committee issued renewed warnings to the UK, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg over their alleged failure to” have effective and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter car manufacturers from breaking the law “. The nations have two months to reply to prevent action from being escalated.

Elzbieta Bienkowska, industry commissioner told:” We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part. Manufacturers that maintain disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing .”

Keith Taylor, Green party MEP for south-east England,” Post-Brexit, this is exactly the kind of scrutiny and oversight matters the Tories plan to escape. Proposals for a so-called environment watchdog that is nothing but a lame lapdog put this reality in sharp relief .”

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