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People walking along a pedestrian street

You have a right to breathe clean air

ClientEarth Communications

13 September 2021

Illegal levels of air pollution are damaging our health, reducing our quality of life and cutting lives short. Globally, 9 out of 10 people breathe polluted air but often, people are unaware of the potential health impacts of poor air quality. No-one should have to breathe dirty air - more needs to be done to protect our health. That's where ClientEarth comes in.

How does air pollution affect our health?

Air pollution affects the health and quality of life of people living in cities across Europe on a daily basis. It aggravates breathing conditions and increases the risk of asthma attacks leading to more hospital admissions. Prolonged exposure can cause serious medical conditions, such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

While we are all affected, those who are the most vulnerable in our society are more at risk, especially children and older people. Exposure to air pollution can cause children to develop breathing conditions and stunted lungs.

There is also a growing body of research linking air pollution to other illnesses, including diabetes, developmental problems for children and suggested links to dementia.

We spoke to Dr Zoe Williams to find out more about how air pollution impacts our bodies, our children and our long-term health.

Dr Zoe Williams, GP and Media Medic explains the health impacts of air pollution.

We're leading the legal fight for clean air.

Ten years ago, few people recognised air pollution as a public health emergency in Europe.

Of course, cities such as London had experienced issues with smog in the past. But the dangers of modern-day, invisible air pollution were rarely highlighted in mainstream media. Although it was still damaging people’s health, it was low on the public agenda.

The health impacts of air pollution were something James Thornton was keenly aware of when he moved to London and set up ClientEarth. He discovered that air quality levels were far exceeding legal limits. He decided something needed to be done – and knew ClientEarth’s lawyers were the right team to do it.

Child wearing a mask
woman wearing mask due to air pollution
Cyclists in London

Our fight for cleaner air in the UK.

After a five year legal battle, in April 2015, ClientEarth won a Supreme Court ruling against the government which ordered the UK Government to start work on a comprehensive plan to meet pollution limits as soon as possible.

However, those plans were so poor that ClientEarth took the government back to the High Court.

Again, we proved in the courts that the UK government was failing in its legal duty to protect us from toxic air pollution, forcing it to produce two new air quality plans.

We are now seeing the start of long-awaited change in the UK. Concrete measures to get that illegal air pollution down – Clean Air Zones (CAZs) – are increasingly becoming a reality across the UK. CAZs are the most effective way to quickly reduce illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in urban areas.

But the government is not acting fast enough. Air pollution is an invisible killer and we have the solutions at our fingertips. A national network of Clean Air Zones would quickly remove the most polluting vehicles from our roads and slash levels of nitrogen dioxide – a lethal pollutant. That’s why we’re still fighting for a plan fit to tackle this public health crisis.

James Thornton, ClientEarth founder
James Thornton tells the story of our six year legal battle to protect our health.

Now we're bringing the fight to Europe.

  1. Germany

    In Germany, ClientEarth is collaborating with Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH). Since 2015, we have brought 16 legal cases on air pollution over illegal levels of harmful gas nitrogen dioxide, against regional authorities. This has resulted in a groundbreaking ruling of Germany’s top court that paved the way to orders to restrict diesel vehicles in more than 10 German cities, including Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt.

  2. Belgium

    In Belgium, ClientEarth worked with five Brussels residents to challenge the region’s government for failing to deal with illegal levels of air pollution. ClientEarth discovered that the monitoring stations at two main roads in Brussels had been switched off between 2008 and 2014. The case went all the way to the Europe's top court - the CJEU. In January 2021, the Brussels court ruled that the Brussels regional government had breached EU law by failing to correctly monitor and protect the health of its citizens against harmful levels of air pollution. The authorities were ordered to take immediate action to address the issue.

  3. Italy

    In Italy we have have been carrying out much work in Lombardy, forcing the region to adopt a new air quality plan. Meanwhile, the mayor in Milan launched an ambitious low emissions zone in February 2019 that completely bans diesel from the entire city.

  4. Poland

    In October 2015, ClientEarth supported a tourist who sued Zakopane, a Polish spa town, for charging visitors an environmental fee despite having illegal levels of air pollution. Polish courts ruled that the tourists had been charged illegally in June 2017 and upheld the ruling in March 2018 on appeal.

  5. France

    In France, the government was ordered by the Conseil d’Etat to produce an air quality plan within nine months to improve air quality in 16 areas, which were exceeding legal limits. This ruling was the result of legal action taken by Les Amis de la Terre, with our support.

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