Chair reacts to ECJ Air Quality ruling

19 November 2014

Reacting to the ruling given today in the European Court of Justice on the Government’s obligations to meet air pollution targets as laid down in the Ambient Air Quality Directive

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley MP said:

“Parliament’s green watchdog has been warning the Government for the last four years that it must tackle the public health crisis being caused by heavy traffic in our towns and cities. Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people living or working near busy roads, however, Minister’s have complacently carried on with business as usual and put off serious efforts to deal with the problem for another decade.”

“It is not acceptable for Ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breath clean air. Children’s development and people’s lives are at risk right now; we need urgent action to get the most polluting vehicles off our streets and get more people walking, cycling and taking public transport. Today’s ruling from the European Court is a welcome intervention, because it will force the Government to prioritise the issue of air quality in all decisions on transport policy and infrastructure.”


The EAC first called for urgent Government action to reduce the death toll associated with air pollution back in 2010 when the risk of EU fines for breaching targets became apparent. In 2011, the current Committee concluded:

We can see no circumstances in which a delay in achieving these targets or a lessening of these targets would be acceptable. Any delay or lessening would simply put more lives a risk.

Breach of Ambient Air Quality Directive

The European Commission started its own proceedings against the UK for breach of nitrogen dioxide limits in February 2014. It is also currently conducting proceedings against 17 other Member States for failure to meet Particulate Matter air pollution limits and is considering proceedings against 17 Members States for failure to meet nitrogen dioxide limits.

Today’s ruling was requested by the UK Supreme Court in connection with a case brought against the UK Government by environmental lawyers Client Earth. The case will now return to the Supreme Court, which expects to give a final judgment in Spring 2015. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the UK is in breach of the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

Background to case

The case refers to in 16 areas of the UK  which do not meet EU nitrogen dioxide limit values. The Government had argued that its plans for tackling air quality were subject to economic and other considerations. However the Court of Justice disagreed and ruled that Member States have a legal duty to use all available measures to meet air pollution targets regardless of financial or other considerations and within an agreed date (which by implication should be as short a time as possible).

During the court case the Government admitted that in some urban areas including London, Birmingham and Leeds it would not meet the EU limits on nitrogen dioxide until after 2030 – a full 15 years after the original deadline.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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