Legal complaint to EU against UK air quality failure

Winter smog over London. Photo: Stu Mayhew/ Creative Commons

Forty out of forty-three air quality zones were in breach of the NO2 limit value in 2010.

In February, Clean Air in London (CAL) wrote to the European Commission filing a two-part complaint against the UK for infringements of EU air quality law and requesting infraction action before the London 2012 Olympics to enforce PM10 and NO2 limit values.

Part one of the complaint is that the UK unlawfully obtained a time extension to comply with the daily limit value for airborne particulate matter (PM10) in London and that, even if a time extension is sustained, this limit value was again breached in Neasden Lane in London in 2011. The UK had failed to consult the public on the updated air quality plan for London that it submitted to the Commission to obtain the time extension.

Part two of the complaint is that the UK breached the annual mean and hourly limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in London and 16 other zones in 2010 (and 2011), and it has not applied for a time extension for those zones.

According to CAL, the UK and London in particular have some of the worst air pollution in Europe. For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in September 2011 that the number of premature deaths attributable to long-term exposure to particles in 2008 was higher in the UK than in any other country in the EU27.

The UK has a higher percentage of zones exceeding the NO2 annual limit value plus margin of tolerance than any other country in the European Union (i.e. 40 out of 43 zones). Official data shows that nearly 700,000 London inhabitants were exposed to unlawful levels of NO2 in London in 2010.

In an official UK submission to the Commission, dated 22 September 2011, it is stated that:

“However, parts of 40 of the 43 UK zones have not achieved full compliance with the annual NO2 limit value in 2010. Parts of three of the 40 zones are also non-compliant with the hourly limit value in 2010. The UK is therefore submitting to the European Commission air quality plans with a view to postponement of the compliance date to 2015 where attainment by this date is projected.” CAL considers this wording misleading in the context submitted.

The UK’s submission went on to say “The table shows that of the 40 zones with exceedances in 2010, compliance may be achieved by 2015 in 23 zones, 16 zones are expected to achieve compliance between 2015 and 2020 and that compliance in the London zone is currently expected to be achieved before 2025.”

On 16 December 2011, the UK submitted a report titled “Air Pollution in the UK 2010 – Compliance Assessment Summary” to the Commission. This report confirmed the UK had breached the NO2 limit value in London and 39 of 42 other zones in 2010.

In its complaint CAL urges the Commission to launch an infraction process against the UK by no later than 30 April 2012 to enforce the PM10 daily limit value and the NO2 annual mean and hourly limit values. London is hosting the Olympics from 27 July to 12 August and the Paralympics from 29 August to 9 September.

Christer Ågren

The full complaint:

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