National courts must seek air quality compliance

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on 19 November ruled that the UK must act as “soon as possible” to clean up illegal levels of air pollution. The judgement is the first ever ruling at EU level on enforcing the 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive, which sets legal limits for the concentration of pollutants in the air.

ClientEarth brought the case against the UK government for breaching nitrogen dioxide limits since they entered into force in 2010. Under current plans, the UK is not expected to meet these limits until after 2030. The case will now return to the UK Supreme Court for a final ruling next year. This should see the UK Supreme Court ordering the British government to take action to meet limits in a much shorter timeframe.
Alan Andrews, the ClientEarth lawyer leading the case against the UK on air quality, said: “Today is a bright day for those who suffer from the disastrous health effects of air pollution. It means that citizens can hold their governments to account if they fail to act to improve air quality.”

The ECJ ruled that having an air quality plan does not mean a member state has satisfied its obligations. In cases of non-compliance, national courts should order the relevant authorities to establish a plan that will ensure that the period in which the pollution limits are exceeded is as short as possible.

In effect, the ruling binds the courts of all member states and will have an impact on enforcing air quality levels across the EU. The ruling took place amidst growing concerns that the European Commission considers a withdrawal of the Clean Air Package, including a proposal last year by the Commission to revise the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which is essential to improve air quality.

Arne Fellermann at the European Environmental Bureau said: “This ruling means that member states have to step up their efforts to tackle air pollution and address the all too common breaches of the air quality standards. It underlines the need for adoption of the Clean Air Package, which does not set stricter ambient air quality limits but would provide a stimulus to governments to take the steps needed to comply with the existing limits.”

Sources: EEB and ClientEarth press releases, 19 November 2014
ECJ press release:
The judgement:

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