EU Threatens U.K. With Lawsuit for Air Pollution Breach

The European Commission threatened to file a lawsuit against the U.K. for failing to meet air pollution limits on nitrogen dioxide, a gas that can cause respiratory problems.

Britain missed a deadline of Jan. 1, 2010, for curbing the gas, and hasn’t presented a credible plan spelling out how it’ll do so in the future, the commission said today in a statement on its website. The U.K. regularly exceeds limits in cities including London, Glasgow and Manchester, and is the first to face action over the gas, it said.

“Extensions have been agreed with member states which had a credible and workable plan for meeting air quality standards within five years of the original deadline,” the Commission said. “The U.K. has not presented any such plan for the zones in question.”

The U.K. has struggled to emissions of harmful gases. In 2012, it breached annual limits for nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, in 34 of the country’s 43 zones, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in a report in September. In 2011, the department said in another report that London probably won’t meet its limits until 2025.

Mayor’s Plan

“Air quality in London is steadily improving and now meets legal limits for eight out of nine EU regulated pollutants,” London Mayor Boris Johnson’s office said in an e-mailed statement. Johnson “fully recognizes the need to take further action.”

Johnson is planning to bring in an “ultra-low emission zone” in central London in 2020, restricting what vehicles can enter the capital’s center, his office said. He’s also bringing in tougher requirements for taxis from 2018 and has set up a 20-million pound ($32 million) fund to tackle problem areas.

U.K. measures to tackle air pollution include 900 million pounds ($1.5 billion) of assistance to promote low-emissions vehicles, a 2 billion-pound railway-electrification program and about 107 million pounds each to support cycling and low emissions buses.

Defra said today in an e-mailed statement that meeting EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, is a “challenge” by busy roads.

“Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades,” the department said. “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.”

Nitrogen Levels

Nitrogen dioxide emissions can lead to the buildup of ground-level ozone, “causing major respiratory problems and leading to premature death,” the commission said. “City-dwellers are particularly exposed, as most nitrogen dioxide originates in traffic fumes.”

The commission began legal proceedings by sending the U.K. government a so-called “letter of formal notice,” according to the statement. That’s the first step in a process that can take several years and can lead to fines running to tens of millions of euros for a large country like the U.K., Joe Hennon, a commission spokesman, said today by phone from Brussels.

“This much-needed legal action will hopefully force the government to take urgent steps to end a national scandal that causes tens of thousands of people to die prematurely each year because of air pollution,” Jenny Bates, a campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

The commission said it’s already taking legal action against 17 states for breaches in regulations governing particulate air pollution known as PM10s. The U.K. has two months to respond to today’s notice.

“Reaching legal compliance on NO2 remains a challenge, not just for London but for most cities in the U.K. and 20 other European countries,” Johnson’s office said. “This reflects a failure of EU emission standards and a surge in diesel vehicles over the last 10 years.”

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