Supreme Court rules UK Government is breaking air pollution laws
01 May 2013

The Supreme Court has declared that the Government is failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution. This landmark decision in ClientEarth’s case is a departure from the judgments of the lower courts and paves the way for the European Commission to take legal action against the UK.

Air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK – more than obesity and alcohol combined. Air pollution causes heart attacks, strokes, respiratory disease and children living near busy roads have been shown to grow up with underdeveloped lungs.

ClientEarth’s case concerns 16 cities and regions (including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow) which government plans show will suffer from illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas - until as late as 2020 or 2025.

The Supreme Court confirmed that because the Government is in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”. However, before deciding whether to take further action to enforce the law, it has referred a number of legal questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO, said: “This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson. Faced with court action on two fronts, he must now come up with an ambitious plan to protect people from carcinogenic diesel fumes. Until now, his only policy has been lobbying in Europe to try and weaken air pollution laws.”

“The Supreme Court recognised that this case has broader implications for EU environmental law: The Government can’t flout environmental law with impunity. If the Government breaks the law, citizens can demand justice and the courts must act.”


George Leigh, ClientEarth communications officer: t. +44 (0)203 030 5951,  e. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth lawyer: t. +44 (0)20 7749 5976,
e. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Notes to editors:

-    Pollution from road traffic, and particularly diesel fumes, is the most significant cause of  poor air quality. The two pollutants of most concern are microscopic airborne particles, known as ‘PM10’,  and nitrogen dioxide.

-    2013 has been declared the “Year of Air” by the EU, which is overhauling all its air pollution laws. The World Health Organisation is calling for stricter standards to protect health after finding that the current limits are inadequate.

-    The UK Government is lobbying to weaken air quality laws: Defra’s Red Tape Challenge Implementation Plan states its intention to ‘use the EC review of air quality legislation to seek amendments to the Air Quality Directive which reduce the infraction risk faced by most MSs, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions’.

-    Defra’s plans project that compliance with nitrogen dioxide limits will not be achieved until as late as 2025 in Greater London and 2020 in the following: West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teeside, The Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, Eastern England, South East England, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands and North East England.

-    Obesity and alcohol are each estimated to be responsible for 9,000 premature deaths per year. See table 2.1 in this recent report.

-    The World Health Organisation has classified diesel exhaust fumes as carcinogenic for humans, based on evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.

-    ClientEarth leads the Healthy Air Campaign, a coalition of health, environment and transport groups working to tackle the public health threat caused by air pollution. The campaign calls for a strong public voice to oppose the UK Government’s regressive stance on air quality.


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