By Emilie Collins | Contributor
The European Court of Justice ruled last week that the UK has ‘systematically and persistently’ surpassed legal limits on nitrogen dioxide emissions for over a decade, with the court arguing that the government has failed to adequately put in place measures to reduce the levels of air pollution. The government’s own data reveals that emissions of NO2, a toxic gas predominantly emitted by diesel vehicles and gas heating boilers, are being exceeded in 33 out of 43 air quality assessment zones.
The ruling has not been met without protest from the UK government, putting forward the argument that a UK High Court judge found the government’s actions to tackle emissions in 2017 to be ‘sensible, rational and lawful’. A government spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave the following statement:
“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 nitrogen dioxide exceedances in the shortest possible time.”
Ministers have also claimed unfair treatment by the Court, highlighting that other nations have equally breached the limits.
Whether or not the UK has been singled out, the government may face financial penalties if it fails to comply with air pollution limits and has already been ordered by the court to pay the legal costs of the trial, with the amount potentially coming to millions of pounds.
However, so far, only one ‘clean air zone’ has been put in place, in London, despite the fact that UK government’s own findings have deduced these as the most effective measures to reduce NO2 emissions.
Not only will the government’s inaction have a detrimental long-term effect on the climate, but the nation’s immediate health is being put at major risk, with 40,000 early deaths each year being attributed to long-term exposure to high air pollution levels. However, the coroner’s inquest into the 2013 death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, shed new light on the urgency and seriousness of the emissions crisis, with the coroner concluding that, despite being merely 9 years old, she “died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”.
The government’s future action will be overseen by a proposed new UK Office for Environmental Protection. However, the accountability potential of this internal watchdog is already being scrutinised by environmental campaigners with Katie Nield, of environmental law firm ClientEarth arguing that, “there are big question marks as to whether the OEP will have the independence, authority and resources [it needs]”.