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UK Government faces Supreme Court over illegal air pollution
March 4 2013

•    ClientEarth’s case against the Government for failing to meet legal limits for air quality will be heard by the Supreme Court on Thursday 7 March 2013.

•    This landmark case could lead to the Government being forced to take action to drastically reduce air pollution, a public health issue that causes 29,000 early deaths each year – more than obesity and alcohol combined.

James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO, says: “Air pollution is an invisible killer that causes heart attacks and strokes, stops children’s lungs from growing properly and is linked to low birth weight in newborns.”

“For too long, the government has got away with failing to protect the public’s health from air pollution, and we have the right to take them to court to demand action. Our government is lobbying in Brussels to try to weaken current air quality laws instead of coming up with an ambitious new plan to clean up the dirty diesel vehicles which are choking our towns and cities.”

The case concerns 16 regions, (including London, Manchester and Birmingham), where  government plans will fail to achieve legal limits until up to 15 years after the 2010 deadline, endangering the health of thousands. Levels of pollution on some of Britain’s busiest streets are currently double legal limits.

ClientEarth, an organisation of activist environmental lawyers, originally took this case to court in December 2011, forcing the government to admit that it was breaking EU air quality laws. However, the High Court and later the Court of Appeal refused to take action, ruling that enforcement was a matter for the European commission.  

The appeal to the Supreme Court, which hears only cases which are “of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population” was supported by a letter from the European commission firmly supporting ClientEarth’s interpretation of the EU air quality directive.

Professor Richard Macrory of University College London, one of Britain’s top environmental lawyers, says: “This is one of the most significant cases to come before British courts in recent years,” adding “It would be disastrous if the principle were upheld that, when there is a breach of EU law, it should be solely left to the commission, rather than the national courts, to deal with.”

Weather forecaster and Healthy Air Campaign Ambassador Clare Nasir says: "It is outrageous that the Government needs to be dragged through the courts to get them to tackle this issue. Air pollution is so bad in some of our cities that it is affecting the lung capacity of our children and causing heart attacks and strokes. Shouldn't that be enough?"

"I want my daughter to grow up in a country where we have the right to breathe clean air. I just hope this case helps to make that a reality."



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

Notes to editors:

-    Photo opportunity: London College of Communications students will be giving out clean air in front of the Supreme Court between 10.30am and 4pm on 7 March.

-    The hearing will be streamed live on the Supreme Court’s website. 

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

-    Government lobbying to weaken air quality laws: Defra’s Red Tape Challenge Implementation Plan includes ‘Working in partnership with other Member States (MSs), 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’.

-    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.

-    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.

-    Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) is a gas caused by road traffic and other combustion processes. NO2 is harmful to health and associated with early death, hospital admissions and respiratory symptoms. (See P23, point 3)

-    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.

-    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.

-    ClientEarth’s challenge relates to 16 air quality plans which fail to achieve compliance by 2015. Compliance with NO2 limits is predicted to be 2025 for Greater London and 2020 for 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. Source

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