• Why Has the UK Broken Pollution Limits for a Decade?

Air Clean Up

Why Has the UK Broken Pollution Limits for a Decade?

Mar 07 2021

The European Court of Justice (CJEU) has delivered a damning verdict on the UK’s performance with regards to its pollution levels. Earlier this month, the CJEU condemned the British government’s performance over a number of years, saying it had “persistently and systematically” broken the legal limits regarding nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in the capital and across the country.

The statistics show that concentrations of NO2 remain above the legal threshold as dictated by the EU in three-quarters of urban areas throughout Britain. The pollution is primarily caused by tailpipe emissions from diesel vehicles and the government has outlined proposals on how to curb the contamination, but has as yet been unsuccessful in implementing them or effecting meaningful change.

A decade of dissidence

Under EU law, each member state has an obligation to measure and manage NOx emissions, including NO2. While the UK has been compliant in the former, that monitoring has only served to underline its transgressions with regard to the latter, since NO2 levels have stayed illegally high for a decade. That indicates a failure to address the issue in the shortest time possible, as the legislation dictates.

Although the UK has since left the EU, the court case was lodged against it prior to Brexit taking place. It is still liable to pay the European court fees incurred by the trial, while it could also face further recrimination if it still does not take action to comply with the law. The precise shape that recrimination would take is unclear given the UK’s subsequent departure from the bloc, but it has already been sued and lost three times by environmental law firm ClientEarth.

What’s more, the same limits decreed by the EU are also currently in place in the UK, meaning it continues to fall afoul of its own regulations. In order to replace the EU as a regulatory body, the British government plans to introduce an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), though sceptics doubt it will have the autonomy, authority and financial might required to enforce the laws.

“Dither and delay”

A spokesperson for ClientEarth accused the government of “dragging its feet” and that while it continued to “dither and delay”, thousands of Britons were dying prematurely as a result of exposure to contaminated air. Late last year, a landmark court case ruled that air pollution was a direct contributor to the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, the first time such a verdict had been delivered anywhere in the world.

According to research commissioned by the government itself, the best way to tackle the problem and bring down NO2 levels is via the implementation of clean-air zones in urban metropoles. However, only one has been brought into force to date in London. While there are others in the pipeline, the outbreak of the pandemic has put them on hold indefinitely.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that one of the more newsworthy environmental implications of coronavirus has been the improved air quality during lockdown when industry came to a standstill and fewer vehicles took to our roads. It now seems as though COVID-19 might have provided some short-term benefits to air pollution, but it’s causing significantly more damage in the long run.


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