The UK's Pollution Is So Bad, the EU's Taking Legal Action

There's only so many times you can get an extension on targets set years ago.

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Feb 20 2014, 3:38pm
Image: Richard Bitting/Flickr

The European Commission is taking legal action against the UK over the country’s excessive air pollution. It’s the first case to be brought against an EU member state for missing a deadline to cut levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide, which was already extended by five years.

In a statement released today, the Commission announced that it had sent a letter of formal notice to the UK, which has two months to respond. The Telegraph reports that failure to reduce levels of fumes and work with the Commission “could result in fines of hundreds of millions”—presumably, if the case were to be taken to the European Court of Justice and found in breach of the directive.

Nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas that’s chugged out into the atmosphere mainly by traffic and industry. As well as being a cause of acid rain, the EU says it’s “the main pre-cursor for ground-level ozone causing major respiratory problems and leading to premature death,” which is why it sets hourly and annual limits for how much of the gas should be allowed in its member countries’ air. 

Initially, those limits were supposed to be met by 2010, but some countries were allowed an extended deadline of 2015 on the basis that they had a “credible and workable plan” to reach the standards by then. A year away from that extension, and the Commission writes that “the UK has not presented any such plan for the zones in question.”

The zones mentioned are the 16 areas recognised as the worst for exceeding air pollution across the country. They are: Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the East, the South East, the East Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the West Midlands, and the North East. For anyone lacking a good grasp of British Geography, that accounts for huge swathes of the country and particularly the large urban areas. There are 43 “zones” in total for the purpose of monitoring air pollution.

This kind of pollution can be reduced by simple steps like planting trees and making busy roads low-emission zones, or more futuristic solutions like smog-eating buildings—but you don't see many of those amidst British rush hour traffic jams.

While the UK might not have been expecting the legal proceedings, it shouldn’t be all that surprised either. The country’s own Supreme Court already declared that pollution exceeded limits in these areas last year, and a reference to this landmark ruling in the Commission’s statement suggests it might have spurred them to action. The EC notes the Court’s finding that “London compliance with EU standards will only be achieved by 2025, 15 years after the original deadline, and in 2020 for the other 15 zones.”

Britain is not the only offender when it comes to exceeding emissions levels, but in light of the evidence—and the government’s apparently blasé attitude in failing to set any real plans in place so long past the initial deadline—it’s difficult to complain that the EU’s judgment is in any way unfair. 

But the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—which has a lot on its plate right now due to coping with catastrophic flooding and allegations that their minister is a climate-change skeptic—still seems to be playing for sympathy or maybe just a tu quoque; a spokesman told the BBC that 21 other member states didn’t meet their emissions target in 2012. 

“Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades. Just like for other Member States, meeting the NO2 limit values alongside busy roads has been a challenge,” he said. “That is why we are investing heavily in transport measures to improve air quality around busy roads and we are working with the Commission to ensure this happens as soon as possible.” 

By all accounts, it doesn’t look like it’ll be soon enough.