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Leon Kaye headshot

U.K. Government Sued Over Air Pollution Levels

By Leon Kaye

Brexit has dominated British politics since this summer's shocking referendum, but the new Tory government under Theresa May has another thorn in its side. The environmental NGO ClientEarth is suing the United Kingdom for failing to deal with what it calls a “national air pollution crisis.”

ClientEarth, which describes itself as a group of activist lawyers committed to a cleaner planet, claims the U.K. failed to comply with laws drafted to cap the maximum concentrations of nitrogen oxide in the air. Despite a 2010 deadline for European Union compliance, the lawsuit charges that 38 out of 43 air quality zones across the country fall short of these air pollution standards and, even worse, are not on course to meet minimum levels until 2025.

This is the second time that ClientEarth has sued the U.K.’s environmental ministry for alleged failures in bringing down air pollution levels. In April 2015, shortly after David Cameron and the Conservative Party won national elections in a landslide, ClientEarth’s litigation led the U.K. Supreme Court to rule that the government’s plans to improve air quality were ineffective and needed to be rewritten.

The NGO insists it has been unwavering in its litigation largely because of what it concludes are the 40,000 premature deaths in the United Kingdom attributed to air pollution. And it described the current government’s latest directive announcing the introduction of new clean air zones as vague and “overoptimistic.”

Much of the blame, in ClientEarth’s view, is at the hands of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. The group accused the former treasury minister, who stepped down after May became Prime Minister in the wake of the Brexit vote, of opposing any new air quality compliance measure because of their fiscal impact on the country’s budget.

According to ClientEarth, one of the largest culprits in the U.K.’s struggle to rein in emissions is diesel-powered automobiles, which the organization says are subjected to “laughable” emissions testing by the U.K. transportation department. As the fallout from last year’s Volkswagen emissions scandal mounted, all diesel vehicles the department tested fell short of acceptable nitrogen oxide levels, further contributing to the country’s air quality woes.

Describing the air quality in the U.K. as a “public health crisis,” ClientEarth urged far more proactive measures from the government in order to tackle the problem head-on. Indeed, other press reports throughout the country back up ClientEarth’s assessment that the U.K.’s air quality is at a tipping point. The Telegraph, a center-right newspaper often sympathetic to the Tories, even published a report suggesting that U.K. air pollution levels were responsible for more traffic accidents in recent years.

Whether the current government will budge, however, is the big question. Negotiating the U.K. out of the European Union remains May’s top priority, and time is of the essence as ClientEarth’s litigation is largely based on laws mandated by Brussels. And while electric vehicles appear to resonate with U.K. drivers and solar power at times generated more electricity than coal in recent months, the country’s energy policy faces many uncertainties as the government finds a way to divorce itself from Europe.

Nevertheless, ClientEarth says it is weary of the government’s excuses and foot dragging. The group called for better labeling of cars so consumers understand their emissions levels, a retrofitting of the nation’s public transportation infrastructure, and an ambitious launch of clean air zones in urban areas. Writing in the Guardian on Monday, ClientEarth CEO James Thornton asked Britons publicly, “Why are you and I still inhaling unlawful levels of nitrogen dioxide nearly 20 years after it should have been cleaned up?”

Image credit: David Holt/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye