European court of justice can impose multimillion euro fines if the UK and five other countries do not address the problem
Damian CarringtonFirst published on Thu 17 May 2018 11.20 BST
The UK and five other nations have been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal 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, mostly 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 condemned 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 to implement the stricter measures.
“We have waited a long time and we cannot possibly wait any longer,” said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment. “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 “credible, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution as soon as possible, 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, said: “On top of our three successful cases, today’s legal action from the European commission 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, said new urgency was need to tackle air pollution: “While air pollution knows no borders and puts everyone at risk, those most vulnerable – pregnant women, children, the elderly, those already ill or poor– are particularly affected.”