Warning over Scottish pollution levels after UK ministers lose legal action

The Scottish Government has been told it must take bold new steps to cut air pollution or risk legal action after UK ministers were successfully taken to court over their own environmental record.

Emilia Hanna of Friends of the Earth, which claims air pollution kills 2,500 Scots every year.

The UK Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has said it is reviewing its air quality strategy after judges at the High Court in London ruled that it fails to meet EU legal standards.

Environmental groups have warned the Scottish Government that pollution levels in Scottish cities are also in breach of EU rules, opening ministers to possible court action.

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Emilia Hanna, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, called on the Scottish Government to commit to funding a network of low-emissions zones in the most polluted areas, including parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the dirtiest vehicles could face charges or be banned altogether. The government should also consider smart-card payment systems for buses across Scotland to boost public transport usage, she said.

“This judgment must serve as a warning to the Scottish Government to give its full financial backing for Low Emission Zones in Scottish towns and cities with pollution problems as soon as possible,” Hanna said. “There are now 38 Pollution Zones in Scottish towns and cities – areas where levels of toxic air are dangerously high.”

She added: “Scotland too is bound by the same European law which was being interpreted in the case, and Scotland’s air quality plan, ‘Cleaner Air for Scotland’ was the Scottish limb of the Defra plan which was found to be illegal.” Friends of the Earth cite evidence showing air pollution causes 2,500 early deaths in Scotland each year.

Scottish ministers were invited to represent themselves as part of the High Court action led by environmental law firm ClientEarth, but declined to do so.

Green environment spokesman Mark Ruskell MSP said: “The Scottish Government simply backed away from its record on air quality by declining to take part in this case. Now it finds itself in an embarrassing position as Scotland’s pollution hotspots have contributed to a UK-wide judgment on the failure to protect public health.”

Alan Andrews, an air quality lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “Since the Scottish Government has powers over air quality in Scotland, they also have a responsibility to take action to reduce the harmful health impacts of pollution. Like Defra, the Scottish Government has so far not done enough.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its latest air quality strategy was the first in Europe to adopt WHO guidelines on the particulate matter that damage health, adding it is “demonstrating our level of ambition”.