The UK government’s plan to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis is illegally poor, the supreme court decided. This marks the second time in 18 months when the officials have lost the case on this issue in court.

London viewed from Hackney, April 2015.
Image credits David Holt / Flickr.

A while ago I’ve written about how the UK’s government is being taken to court (again) over their lack of action regarding air pollution throughout the country. The supreme court has finally released its ruling on the case — officials must work towards cutting illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in dozens of towns and cities in “the shortest possible time.”

ClientEarth, the NGO which took the government to court over the issue, said that the plans currently set in place are, well, flimsy at best. UK’s policy makers have placed too much weight on the issue of cost, they said, ignoring many measures which would have helped improve the country’s air quality. Justice Graham, who ruled on the case, agrees with them. Graham added that ministers knew their plans relied on over-optimistic pollution modeling, which were based on diesel vehicles’ emission levels recorded in lab settings rather than on the road. The numbers have since been proven wrong. If I may quote myself from the previous article (and I believe I can):

[ClientEarth’s supporters point out that ] as the Volkswagen [scandal] recently proved, NO2 and particulate matter emission measurements for modern diesels (on which these models are based) are flat-out lies.

Faced with the second ruling against them in such a short time, the UK’s government took its losses and said they won’t appeal the decision. In court, officials agreed to discuss a new timetable with ClientEarth for realistic pollution modeling, and the steps required to curb pollution down to legal levels. The two parties will re-convene in court in a week, but if they can’t reach an agreement the judge will impose a timetable upon the government.

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A time to act

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said that the time for legal action has passed, and called on Prime Minister Theresa May to action.

“I challenge Theresa May to take immediate action now to deal with illegal levels of pollution and prevent tens of thousands of additional early deaths in the UK. The high court has ruled that more urgent action must be taken. Britain is watching and waiting, prime minister.”

She responded by saying the government will act in accordance with the ruling, offering new proposals.

“We now recognise that Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has to look at the judgement made by the courts and we now have to look again at the proposals we will bring forward,” she said.

“Nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it.”

Bad air in Britain causes some 50,000 early deaths and amounts to £27.5bn (US$33,84bn) in damages every year, the government estimates. Thornton added that the increased action required to solve the issue will likely include implementing larger and tougher clean air zones in more cities than at present, as well as other methods such as scrapping schemes for the most polluting vehicles — diesels in particular.

Documents revealed during the case showed that the Treasury blocked plans to charge diesel cars for entrance into the most polluted towns and cities, as they were concerned about the political backlash of angering motorists. When the environment and transport departments suggested changing the excise duty on vehicles to promote the least-polluting alternatives, the Treasury rejected their proposal.

It also became apparent that the government planned to bring air pollution down to legal levels by 2020 for some cities and 2025 for London. This was done not because it was “as soon as possible”, but because that was when the officials thought they would face fines from the EU. A draft plan called for 16 low emission zones in cities outside London, for which polluting vehicles would’ve been charged to enter, but that number was cut down to just five to lower costs.

“Today’s ruling lays the blame at the door of the government for its complacency in failing to tackle the problem quickly and credibly. In so doing they have let down millions of people the length and breadth of the country,” said Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who took part in the case against the government.

These proposals will now be revisited. Thornton said that officials should implement a national system of clean air zones by 2018.

“If you put in clean air zones, it works overnight,” he added.

So there it is. The UK government has been told, yet again, to act and protect its people. Hopefully, this time it will.