THE UK is facing a multimillion-pound fine for breaching air quality limits after the European Commission referred it and five other nations to the European Court of Justice.
The commission said that Britain had broken limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), largely produced by diesel vehicles, and had failed to provide “credible, effective and timely” plans to cut pollution.
The hearing on the NO2 breaches is expected to take place within six months. The case relates to breaches of pollution limits in 16 urban areas including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. The annual concentration of NO2 in London in 2016 was 102 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The EU limit is 40 micrograms.
The commission also referred France and Germany to the court but the UK had the worst breaches. The annual level in Paris was 96 micrograms and in Stuttgart 82 micrograms.
Hungary, Italy, and Romania were referred to the court for breaches of limits on particulate matter.
The commission also issued “letters of formal notice”, a precursor to legal action, to the UK, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg for failing to have “effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter car manufacturers from breaking the law”.
This action is related to emissions test cheating by VW Group. The UK has been accused of failing to take sufficient action, such as fining the company or ordering it to fix vehicles.
Neil Parish, the Conservative chairman of the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee, said the commission’s announcement should be “a wake-up call” for the government, which has been ordered three times by British courts to produce tougher plans to reduce air pollution.
He said: “It is astonishing that, despite a series of legal defeats, the government has consistently failed to come up with a coherent and effective plan to tackle this national health emergency.”
Karmenu Vella, the EU’s environment commissioner, said the decision to refer the countries had been taken “on behalf of Europeans”. “We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim,” he said. “The member states referred to the court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation.”
Mr Vella also unveiled new measures to help member states promote cleaner air.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the UK was one of 22 EU states exceeding NO2 limits, adding that the main reason for non-compliance was the failure of European standards for diesel cars to deliver the expected reductions in emissions.
A Defra spokesman said: “We continue to meet EU air quality limits for all pollutants apart from nitrogen dioxide, and data shows we are improving.
“We will shortly build on our £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside emissions with a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy setting out a wide range of actions to reduce pollution from all sources.”
Rosie Rogers, Greenpeace UK’s senior clean air campaigner, said: “Once again, the UK government is being dragged to court to explain its failure to protect people’s health from illegal air pollution. This would be embarrassing for any administration, let alone one that aspires to environmental leadership. Michael Gove should swiftly come up with a clear plan to tackle the diesel vehicles responsible for most roadside toxic pollution and an outright ban on the sale of petrol, diesel cars and vans from 2030.”
Caroline Lucas, Green Party co-leader, said the announcement was “an extremely powerful reminder of just how much we would miss the EU enforcement powers when it comes to environmental protection if Brexit happens.”
This article first appeared in The Times