As London prepares to break its annual legal limit for air pollution for 2018 within a month, the UK and others are facing growing pressure from Brussels to clean up their air
UK ministers have been warned by Brussels that they face EU court action and fines unless the Westminster government urgently cleans up the UK's air.
At a crunch meeting of environment ministers in Brussels yesterday - which was attended by Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey on behalf of the UK - Commission representatives warned that nations with illegal levels of air pollution must take action without delay.
"The deadlines for meeting the legal obligations have long elapsed," warned Commissioner Karmenu Vella in a public statement released after the meeting yesterday. "But we can delay no more. And I have made this very clear to ministers this morning."
Vella said that while there were positive suggestions from ministers on how to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in many European cities, "at first sight" the proposals were not substantial enough to tackle a growing air quality crisis that is thought to be responsible for 400,000 European deaths every year.
The UK is among nine member states in breach of EU standards for air quality, alongside France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
"Without new and effective measures, in many cases, air quality standards will further continue to be exceeded for months and years, even well beyond 2020," Vella said. "In the face of such longstanding failures to take serious action, and in view that the ongoing legal process will continue, I urge all Member states to address this life-threatening problem with the urgency it deserves."
He also offered an unequivocal warning that the EU would not continue to hand out exemptions to countries that breach air quality rules.
"Inaction has consequences," he continued. "It has consequences for citizens and the polluted air they breathe. Member states have responsibilities. Responsibilities to act. Inaction also has legal consequences for the Member States in question. Ministers were reminded of both these responsibilities as well as the legal consequences."
Earlier this week lawyers for environmental law firm ClientEarth told the UK's High Court that air pollution will continue to have a significant impact on human health for many years to come, unless action is taken to improve current plans.
ClientEarth is currently fighting the government in court to force it to upgrade its roadside air quality plan, which it argues is not ambitious enough. Defra, the lead department for the plan, argues it has a £3bn plan in place to improve air quality and curb harmful emissions. "We need clean air action and that is what the government are delivering," Coffey told Parliament last week.
But campaigners are insistent that the plans - which fail to propose a new diesel scrappage scheme and advise councils that road charging measures should be a last resort - will struggle to deliver rapid improvements in air quality.
The news comes as London yesterday reached its annual air pollution limit in less than one month. Although the roll out of cleaner bus routes mean the timing is a significant improvement on previous years - last year legal limits were breached in just five days - the news still underscores the urgent need for action, say campaigners.
"The fact we're not even out of January and London's filthy air has already hit the yearly pollution limit is damning," Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley said. "The government's failure to tackle this public health emergency is just one of the cracks in its new green veneer."
Under EU rules pollution levels are allowed to exceed an hourly limit of 200 micrograms per cubic metre of nitrogen dioxide only 18 times over the course of the year. As of yesterday Brixton Road in south London hit that limit, and is expected to breach it in the next few days.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced yesterday new support for Kings College London, which manages the city's air quality monitors, to make it easier for Londoners to track when pollution is high. He also approved six new cycle routes as part of plans to ensure 80 per cent of journeys in the capital are taken on foot, by bicycle or on public transport by 2021.
He insisted progress was being made to improve London's air quality, but he urgently required more support from the national government.
"For the first time in 18 years, London has gone nearly a month without breaching legal hourly limits for air pollution," he said. "This shows the measures we have already taken in the capital are beginning to take effect. That being said, it is still the case that we are at the legal limit for the year with so much of the year still to go. This means Londoners being exposed to toxic air with detrimental impacts on health.
"I am using all the powers I have to their fullest extent to tackle this health crisis, including reducing the number of older dirty vehicles in central London, cleaning up our bus fleet and investing record amounts in tackling poor air quality. But I have one hand tied behind my back due to government policies and inaction. It's about time the government recognised the true scale of this issue."
Oliver Hayes, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said more action from central government was critical to tackling the air quality crisis. "A decent scrappage scheme to compensate diesel drivers must go hand in hand with a network of genuinely effective Clean Air Zones across the country," he said. "Instead, ministers are actively deterring all but a handful of local authorities pursuing Clean Air Zones, despite their own modelling telling them they're the most effective solution for cleaner air."
It seems that the European Commission is increasingly minded to agree with those green groups who insist bolder policy measures are needed. The big question for the government is whether the High Court concurs. However, it is clear that regardless of the court's final decision, pressure on the government to act - just like the UK's air pollution - is not going to dissipate any time soon.
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