UK loses another court battle over air pollution

25th Nov 2016

Environmental law firm,ClientEarth, has won its second ruling against the UK Government in 18 months. The High Court ruled that the plan put forth to remedy noncompliant air pollution levels still defies the legal limit, and that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) needs to do more to safeguard the health of UK citizens.

ClientEarth’s CEO, James Thornton, called on Prime Minister, Theresa May, to personally oversee the problem and ensure compliance because “Britain is waiting and watching.” It was made clear that DEFRA’s timeline had more to do with when EU fines would come into play rather than the soonest possible date that harmful pollutants could be considerably reduced.

By the Government’s own records, air pollution leads to 40,000 premature deaths per year in the UK; ClientEarth framed the issue as a public health crisis. This latest court ruling called the Air Quality Plan that was ordered in the 2015 ruling “woefully inadequate” in judicial review. The statistical models used were extremely optimistic; some even using flawed lab tests to obtain diesel emissions data rather than information from actual cars on the road. In August, Energy Live News reported that ClientEarth found that, “the newest diesel cars are pumping out six times more dangerous pollutants on average when tested on the road rather than the lab.” That finding sounds eerily similar to Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal.

The Supreme Court ruling in favour of ClientEarth in April 2015 also had to do with the UK’s breach of EU clean air directives. The verdict stated that the Government needed to come up with a plan to clean up the air by the end of 2015, as it had been non-compliant since 2010. The primary concern with noncompliance regarded nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which has been shown to be linked to heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory problems, and is emitted mainly by diesel vehicles. There was discussion after the 2015 ruling of charging a fee to diesel vehicles entering cities with pollution problems, but the Treasury blocked the move, citing political difficulties as well as burdens to motorists.

London has one of the highest levels of air pollution in Europe, but it is still not the only European city out of compliance with lawful NO2 emission levels. Europe has a hard time tackling the problem because of the proportion of diesel cars driven there as compared to the rest of the world. Diesel cars account for about 50% of the cars driven in Europe; in the US that figure is 3%.

Earlier this year, Norway proposed a commitment to outlawing the internal combustion engine by 2025, and other European nations are expected to follow suit. Once enough nations decide to eliminate the internal combustion engine, the EU may impose a mandatory ban, though nations like Germany and France, with major automobile manufacturing facilities, are already pushing back against the idea.

Diesel cars in Europe need to be scaled back in a big way if those nations hope to comply with EU laws, and with the Paris Climate Agreement. The targets set forth in the agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were optimistic in order to steer the world away from runaway warming of the planet. Meanwhile, UK citizens have a lot to say about air pollutants that are harming their health to the point of reducing life-spans.

The Government stated that it would not put forth an appeal to the latest ClientEarth ruling, and PM Theresa May expressed commitment to remedying the issue. After Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal, exorbitant payout fines, and subsequent damage to the company’s reputation, there is a fair amount of scepticism surrounding diesel. Now would be a good time to use that momentum to steer away from diesel fueled cars and transition to less toxic alternatives. Making the public aware of the harmful effects of diesel fuel to their health, while assisting automobile manufacturers in their own transition to cleaner alternatives, could be just what Europe needs to stay on track with climate commitments, while giving citizens cleaner air to breathe.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy



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