The European Union is planning to take Britain to court for consistently breaching air pollution laws, which could result in unlimited daily fines.
Air pollution near many roads averages well over twice the UN’s World Health Organisation maximum recommended level, which has led to constant infringements of EU air quality laws.
In particular, diesel engines emit large quantities of minute, sooty particles known as PM10s which are linked to asthma and heart disease. The government’s own figures estimate they result in 12,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.
The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said that PM10 pollution was particularly bad in London. “There are PM10 exceedances in London along more than 200km of roads,” he wrote to Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman,
In his letter Dimas revealed that legal proceedings were being prepared. “The commission services are now preparing the launch of infringement proceedings against the UK. In view of the serious consequences of high concentrations of PM10, the commission expects the UK to ensure a speedy reduction.”
Britain had been given six years by Europe to reduce its PM10 levels after air legislation was introduced in 1999. This passed into British law in 2005 but documents obtained by the Campaign for Clean Air in London (CCAL) show that limits have been widely breached since then.
The documents show that more than 20 UK cities and conurbations broke the pollution law in 2006, and Belfast, Coventry, London, Birmingham, Tyneside and Bristol also broke it in 2005. These infringements are expected to be the basis of the EU’s legal case against Britain.
The case could take two years to come to court, and could prove embarrassing in the run up to the Olympic games.
The government is also expected to approve plans shortly for a third runway at Heathrow in possible further defiance of air quality laws, and is certain to miss other EU deadlines. A directive, which came into force last June, demands that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution be reduced on some busy streets by more than a third by the end of this year.
Unlike PM10 pollution, which mostly affects people living close to traffic, NO2 is much more widespread. High levels can cause lung damage and increased respiratory infections. Nearly half of nitrogen dioxide emissions come from cars and 25% from power stations.
The only feasible way that Britain can meet its new NO2 target is by tackling traffic congestion with schemes such as low emission zones, which bar the most polluting vehicles from entering areas, or congestion charging as in London.
Aviation is also a significant contributor of NO2, making the Heathrow decision highly relevant.
The government plans to hold a three month consultation and then apply for a time extension to come up with ways to meet its NO2 target. Nine other EU countries are also applying for extensions.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are unlikely to meet the 2010 deadline in respect of nitrogen dioxide. The problem is mainly about existing pollution from traffic.”
Simon Birkett of CCAL said: “Legal action to enforce health-based air quality laws is long overdue. We urge the government to say urgently how it will comply fully with these laws. It can try to delay introducing measures to reduce air pollution but eventually it will have to meet these directives.”