Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

London’s ‘Killer Air’ Ruled Illegal by U.K.’s Top Court

  • Airborne pollutants said to cause 23,500 deaths per year
  • Prime minister: ‘There’s more to do and we will do it’

The U.K. government broke the law by failing to adequately deal with air pollution, a London judge said, ruling that ministers should revise current plans to rein in toxic emissions to comply with European Union standards.

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom must “aim to achieve compliance by the soonest date possible,” High Court Judge Neil Garnham said on Wednesday. “She must choose a route to that objective which reduces exposure as quickly as possible” and take steps to ensure meeting EU standards is “not just possible, but likely.”

Wednesday’s ruling marks the second time that ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law firm, has successfully challenged the government over air quality. The verdict means ministers will now have to revise future plans to ensure they cut sooner toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that comes from diesel engines among other sources. Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers in Parliament on Wednesday that ministers will “look again” at the government’s air quality strategy.

“We recognize that there is more for the government to do,” May said. “We’ve taken action, there’s more to do and we will do it.”

In Breach

Leadsom’s office said in a statement that its plans “have always followed the best available evidence,” and that it is “ready to update them if necessary.”

“Whilst our huge investment in green transport initiatives and plans to introduce clean air zones around the country will help tackle this problem, we accept the court’s judgment,” the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said. “We will now carefully consider this ruling, and our next steps, in detail.”

The government published air quality plans in December that, while improving on previous measures, still projected London to remain in breach of EU guidelines until 2025. It’s those plans the environment department will now have to revise.

The U.K. has been in breach of EU air quality regulations since 2010, and London breached annual limits just eight days into 2016. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office estimates that illnesses from long-term exposure to airborne pollutants cause 9,400 deaths in the capital each year, while ClientEarth estimates the figure is about 23,500 nationwide.

‘Wake-Up Call’

“This must now act as a real wake-up call to government to finally get to grips with this national health emergency,” Khan said Wednesday in a statement. “I am calling for the government’s revised package of measures to include funding a national diesel scrappage scheme to take the most polluting vehicles off our roads and an overhaul of vehicle excise duty to incentivize the buying of the cleanest vehicles, as well as powers to tackle non-road sources of NO2, including from construction.”

May’s spokesman, Greg Swift, later told reporters in London that “acceptable” air quality would be a “central part” of its decision to expand Heathrow Airport, which currently has a nearby monitoring station that’s in breach of EU standards, according to the London Air Quality Network at King’s College.

"We were very clear when the decision on Heathrow was made that air quality at an acceptable level was going to be a central part of that project, and we haven’t moved,” Swift said.

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