ClientEarth head back to court over air quality | Credit: Greenpeace
Environmental lawyers plan to sue government for the third time over its air quality plan they say has ‘major flaws’
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth yesterday announced plans to drag the UK government back to the High Court to force it to improve its court-ordered air quality plan, released last month.
The law firm contends there are still “major flaws” in the new plan, which would see a raft of Clean Air Zones established in polluted regions across the country.
It will be the third time ClientEarth has taken the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to court over its air quality strategy, with previous efforts ruled not to be ambitious enough to meet legal requirements.
The current plan was released on May 5 and is now out for consultation until June 15. It mandates local authorities to take the lead on tackling local air quality, and suggests charging mechanisms to fine the most polluting vehicles should be used only as a last resort.
The government’s own documents admits that instigating charging in Clean Air Zones will have the “greatest impact”, but warns councils plans for charging zones will only be approved if they can be shown to be necessary.
ClientEarth claims its analysis has exposed “major flaws” in the detail of the consultation, and argues it will not have a swift enough affect in improving air quality. “We have found some major flaws,” CEO James Thornton said in a statement. “The law requires the final plan to bring air pollution down to legal levels in the shortest time possible. These flaws seriously jeopardise that timetable.”
“The government’s plans and consultation do not match what its own evidence says needs to happen,” he continued. “If the evidence shows that taking certain measures will be necessary to tackle the public health crisis of polluted air, then the plans and associated consultation needs to make that clear.”
It is estimated poor air quality contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, with pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter linked with conditions including cancer, heart disease and asthma.
Areas across the country regularly exceed legal limits set by the European Union, which are based on guidelines by the World Health Organisation. Just five days into this year parts of London had already breached their pollution limits for the entire year.
In response to the news Environment Minister Therese Coffey, said the Conservative party will work to improve air quality while ensuring families which were encouraged by the last Labour government to purchase diesel cars are not penalised. While in government Labour provided incentives for diesel cars in a bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions – it later emerged that while diesels emit less carbon dioxide they emit higher levels of other airborne pollutants.
“The government is also consulting on what further steps can be taken to mitigate any cost and burdens on ordinary working families and local firms – including the options of targeted scrappage schemes and retrofitting initiatives,” Coffey added.
The court will now decide whether to grant a hearing for the case.
ClientEarth said it will also launch an online tool tomorrow to help people respond to the air quality consultation and express their dissatisfaction with the government plans.
“We are challenging on two fronts because of the urgency of this public health crisis,” Thornton said. “We’re asking the High Court to consider the problems with the plans and consultation. That is now in the court’s hands. In the meantime, it is important for as many people as possible to tell Defra that the plans don’t make sense and won’t tackle illegal air quality in our towns and cities.”