'So far off track': UK air pollution data prompts court action warning

ClientEarth urges government to overhaul Clean Air Strategy as figures show UK is still off track for meeting a raft of legal targets

The government could yet again find itself in court over dangerous levels of air pollution, with the latest official data showing the UK is on track to miss legal targets for four out of five pollutants covered by a crucial piece of clean air legislation, ClientEarth has warned.

The green law group, which has taken the government to court numerous times over the past decade over the UK’s failure to comply with EU air pollution rules, yesterday issued another warning that Ministers could once again face legal action unless they overhaul the country’s air quality strategy.

Under the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018, the UK is legally required to meet binding emission reduction targets for a number of pollutants harmful to the environment and human health, with target dates for hitting both goals in both 2020 and 2030.

However, the latest air quality statistics published by the government on Monday show the UK is on track to miss its 2030 emissions reductions targets by 57 per cent for sulphur dioxide, by 45 per cent for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), by 20 per cent for ammonia, and by 20 per cent for nitrogen oxides.

Moreover, preliminary figures in the statistics indicate the UK has missed its 2020 targets by 12 per cent for PM2.5 and by seven per cent for ammonia, although the final emissions data for 2020 is set to be released in 2022.

With the UK therefore on track to miss its 2020 and 2030 air pollution targets, the government is now required to review its plan for tackling these pollutants within 18 months, as set out in its 2019 Clean Air Strategy, according to ClientEarth.

And if the government fails to review its strategy for meeting its legal air quality targets, it could be dragged back to court, the NGO warned.

“Once again, the government is falling short of its legal obligations to reduce pollution,” said ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield. “They are so far off track that a serious rethink is needed. The government should not have to be dragged to the courts yet again to force it to live up to legal commitments to clean up the air.”

Air pollution is estimated to be responsible to the equivalent of 40,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, and the government has been forced to overhaul its Clean Air Strategy several times in recent years after courts demanded action following successful legal challenges from ClientEarth.

But Nield argues that while Ministers had been lauding the latest Clean Air Strategy, published in 2018, as ‘world-leading’ they were “not living up to it”.

“Now the government is under a legal obligation to revamp its strategy to tackle major emissions sources like road transport but also agriculture and domestic heating – people’s health is on the line,” she said.

Large areas of the UK are still in breach of EU air quality rules for a number of harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particle pollution, for which road traffic is one of the most significant culprits, as ClientEarth has repeatedly warned. Yet studies have estimated that taking action to improve air quality in the UK could net the economy a £1.6bn boost.

Some actions have been taken to address the problem in key urban areas such as London, where the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) has been tightened with plans to expand its remit to cover a wider area of the capital later this year. Meanwhile, Bath and Oxford are among a growing numbers of cities which are either already operating or planning to introduce clean air zones to limit traffic pollution in their city centres.

Responding to ClientEarth’s latest warnings that yet more legal wrangles over dirty air could be imminent, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said air pollution at a national level had reduced “significantly” over the past decade, adding that it planned to take further action in the coming years.

Emissions of fine particles – PM2.5 – have fallen 11 per cent since 2010, while nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions have dropped to “their lowest level since records began”, it said.

“While emissions continue to improve year-on-year, we know there is much more to do which is why we are delivering a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution, among other measures,” Defra said in a statement. “The projections data does not take into account future action that we are taking to tackle air pollution, such as measures in the Environment Bill to help local authorities tackle air pollution, and further measures in the Clean Air Strategy to tackle a range of pollutants.”

However, ClientEarth’s warning came on the same day the the government faced criticism for cutting grants for electric vehicles in a move the CBI said would make it harder to deliver on the UK’s goal to end the sale of new internal combustion engine cars from 2030.

Read more: businessgreen.com