EU’s Top Court Rules UK Broke Air Pollution Law

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled the UK “systematically and persistently” breached air pollution limits. The ECJ declared the annual limit value for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) had been exceeded in 16 zones of the UK, as well as the hourly limit value for NO2 in the Greater London urban since the limit values had come into force on 1 January 2010. The UK has been ordered to pay the costs incurred by the European Commission, in addition to its own costs.

The UK will now have to consider how it responds to the ruling. If the UK does not stop illegal levels of air pollution within a reasonable period, the European Commission could issue a formal letter requesting the UK to take appropriate action. If the EC remain unsatisfied it could bring the matter to the ECJ a second time and seek financial penalties to be imposed on the UK. Having said that, it is unclear whether the EC would have the power or inclination to request financial penalties given the UK has now left the EU.

Air pollution is an issue that has been grabbing headlines in recent times. Recent research from the Royal College of Physicians suggests in the UK, every year around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution. If this research alone was not cause for concern, it has only been a few months since Southwark Coroner’s Court listed air pollution as making a material contribution to a 9-year-old girl’s death.

In response to the growing concerns over air pollution, clean air zones are expected to be implemented in Bath, Birmingham, and London this year. These are designed to keep most polluting vehicles out of most polluted parts of town. This ruling may give the UK more impetus to roll-out such zones to many more cities, and to address the issue of air pollution in a way that is consistent with the Clean Air Strategy 2019.