THE UK’s highest court has ordered the government to take “immediate action” to ensure toxic air pollution is kept within European legal limits.
Supreme Court justices announced their decision yesterday after a five-year legal battle by environmental campaigners over dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.
In a unanimous ruling, a panel of five judges found the UK failed to comply with EU limits by a 2010 deadline in 16 cities – including Glasgow.
The judges, headed by the court’s president Lord Neuberger, ordered the government to “prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European Commission”, with a deadline “no later” than the end of this year.
The conditions must be met, regardless of the outcome of the general election.
Announcing the decision, Lord Carnwath said: “The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.”
Contaminants in traffic emissions are a major cause of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions including lung cancer, heart attacks and asthma, costing the NHS billions annually.
Around 29,000 premature deaths across the UK every year have been linked to the effects of air pollution from traffic fumes, with 2,000 in Scotland alone. However, recent research suggests the true figure could be as high as 35,000 to 50,000.
The verdict, which comes after ClientEarth sued the government for failing to protect the public from the health hazards of air pollution, has been welcomed by leading health and environment campaign groups.
The decision is “encouraging”, according to Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.
“Exposure to air pollution affects the health of everyone, especially children and those living with pre-existing lung conditions.
“Developing and implementing a coherent strategy for reducing air pollution is therefore essential if we are to clean up our dirty air and protect the health of us all.”
Mike Hobday, of the British Heart Foundation, said it sends “a clear message” that the UK’s dirty air must be cleaned up.
“The UK government has a duty to protect public health and ensure the air we breathe is safe – a duty they have so far failed to fulfil,” he added.
Environment charity Friends of the Earth Scotland, which earlier this year revealed a black list of Scottish pollution hotspots, hailed the ruling as “a huge victory in the fight for clean air”.
The UK government said it is working “to ensure compliance with the limit values in the shortest possible time”.
The Scottish Government is considering responses to its draft low emission strategy. A spokesman said the judgment’s implications north of the Border are still being assessed.
He added: “Data shows that significant reductions in air pollutants have been achieved since 1990.
“Although there has been very good progress, we recognise there is more to be done to deliver further health and environmental benefits where areas of poorer air quality remain.”