Beginning today, environmental lawyer group ClientEarth is taking to court against the UK government in the second lawsuit between the two. CE claims that the lawmakers have failed to take serious action to limit air pollution, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands.

Canary Wharf under smog.
Image credits Matt Buck / Wikimedia.

European cities have some of the highest levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the world, mostly due to the high ratio of diesel vehicles in use. Since regular exposure to this gas is very hazardous, in 1999 the EU set legal limits for how much of the stuff can be puffing about in the air we breathe — limits which went into effect in 2010.

Under this law, the city of London got an hourly limit of 200 micrograms NO2/sq meter of air. However, to say that authorities didn’t try to abide by these figures would be an understatement.

“[London was] only permitted to breach those limits 18 times in a year. However, [the city] weezed past the yearly limit just 8 days into the year,” Andrei wrote in January.

“[London polluted] about 40 times more than it should under EU (European Union) regulation.”

Love is in the air, but so is pollution

And it’s not just London. Only five of the country’s 43 air quality zones meet the EU’s limits. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the people who have to breathe it all in.

So in 2011, backed by rising public displeasure on the issue, ClientEarth took the UK government to court over their lack of action on cleaning the air. The case was handled by the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2014 that national courts can and should ensure their governments take pollution under legal limits “as soon as possible”. From then on, the UK’s Supreme Court handled the suit. In April 2015 it ordered the environmental minister to take “immediate action” by consulting with the public and putting together a plan to clean the air.

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Clean air plz we’re dying — Love, Supreme Court, xoxo.

But very little has been done. The plan set out back in December was so vague that CE said they’ll take the UK government to court again, unless their game improves, literally days after it was made public. In effect, the plan estimated compliance to the limits by 2025. To add insult to injury, DEFRA announced it will begin public consultations on the plan involving the creation of five clean air zones — which will not restrict diesel vehicles — just last week, mere days before the second trial.

“It’s taken 18 months for ministers to even begin a consultation,” says James Thornton, head of ClientEarth. “This is a woefully inadequate response to the air pollution crisis.”

So CE is taking to courts against the UK’s government yet again. Supporters say that the government has been deliberately stalling, based on models which predict that emissions would decline as older vehicles get phased out without the ruling body having to do much. They point out that, as Volkswagen recently proved, NO2 and particulate matter emission measurements for modern diesels (on which these models are based) are flat-out lies.

“Defra’s latest figures estimate there are 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year because of air pollution. The government is acting unlawfully by refusing to turn this situation around. It is failing morally and it is failing legally to uphold our right to breathe clean air,” ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said.

More decisive action is needed

“The government must come up with far bolder measures, ready to face this issue head-on,” Thornton added.

“Air quality in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis.”

So what would constitute “bolder measures”? Phasing out diesel is the first obvious step. For starters, I find it mindboggling that the UK is still handing out incentives for diesel cars — so maybe start there? Something along the lines of “scrap your own diesel and get a discount on this brand new *insert literally anything else here*”. Then the implementation of real Clean Air Zones would prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering towns or city centers. Retrofitting of buses and trucks to make them gentler on the environment and lungs, a cleaner public transport network, and so on. There’s a lot to do here.

Clean energy would also help a lot to improve air quality.

But first this case needs to happen, and the UK government needs to understand that pollution is a very real hazard to the public, one which they have a moral — and legal — obligation to solve.

The trial will take place on Oct. 18 and 19, with the ruling to be announced two weeks after the hearing.