UK air quality plans back to the drawing board

08 November 2016

By Tim Williamson

On 2 November, the High Court in London ruled in favour of activist legal group Client Earth in its challenge to the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan. The Court ruled that the Plan did not meet a requirement in the EU Clean Air Directive as transposed into UK law. This requires that the Government ensures the UK complies with air quality limit values “as soon as possible” after the original compliance date. Central to the plan is the need to meet the annual average limit value for NO2 whose original compliance date was 2010. The plan as it stands wouldn’t see compliance in London until 2025, with other zones reaching the target by 2020.

This is the second time Client Earth has successfully challenged the ambition of the UK Air Quality Plan, winning in April 2015 in the Supreme Court a case that had been referred back from the European Court of Justice. While the Government could appeal the latest ruling to the Supreme Court, the indications are that is will accept the judgement and re-draw its plans.

While the broad facts of the case probably won’t surprise anyone who has been involved in the UK air quality scene, the Government’s case was severely undermined by emails, released under disclosure of evidence rules, which showed opposition from HM Treasury to some of the key measures.  Those measures could have significantly strengthened the plan, such as the inclusion of private cars in low emissions zones and changes to the tax treatment of diesel vehicles. Other communications appeared to show that the modelling parameters used in the impacts assessment were focussed more on the European legal process than on achieving shorter compliance dates.

So where now for UK air quality policy? Central to the issue is the performance of diesel vehicles in the real world, although they aren’t solely responsible for NO2 exceedances. Whichever sources are targeted, it’s clear from that case that, while Defra is the lead Government Department for air quality, agreement from the Treasury and Cabinet Office will be key to any strengthened measures which could be proposed. Increasing the number of Clean Air Zones is likely given the need to re-run the models with less optimistic assumptions. But this won’t address the timescales for compliance in London and the other Zones. There may need to be a serious discussion about the application of LEZs to private vehicles. This is commonplace in Germany and elsewhere but up to now considered out of the question in the UK. However, calls to ban diesel from city centres are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially as, according to Emissions Analytics and others, there are Euro 6 diesels on the market which are performing in the real world close to their emission limits while still providing a CO2 benefit.

The question of how and when Brexit will impact on the case is also important and unresolved. If the UK does leave the EU in a little over two years’ time, will the Government still feel bound by a ruling based on EU legislation, potentially prompting further legal action? In addition, Defra’s resources are likely to be severely stretched disentangling UK and EU legislation, a quarter of which lies within its remit. Resolving issues around the common agricultural policy alone will be difficult and time consuming. Given that the main air quality impacts are on human health, accepting that acidification and eutrophication are still important issues, should Department of Health take a more prominent role? Whatever happens, Defra’s next move is keenly awaited.

Photo credit: © Copyright John Allan

 

See all news

Testimonial

Don't just take our word for it...

“A heartfelt thank you to all the Aether team for this very comprehensive review – this is certainly turning out to be one of the most beneficial capacity building projects I have ever been involved in.”

Saviour Vassallo, Senior Environment Protection Officer, Malta Resources Authority

“Aether's approach to couple innovative visualisation with high expertise manpower delivered valuable insights for our inventory work.”

Umweltbundesamt (Germany)

“Chris was excellent to work with and always very pro active in making suggestions, taking work forward and applying his considerable technical knowledge in effective ways.”

Robert Vaughan, Defra Air Quality Team

“Engaging Aether to support us to develop the first GHG Inventory System and first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the United Republic of Tanzania has been a rewarding experience due to their high level of professionalism, creativity, timeliness and value for money. We will definitely consider Aether in our future initiatives.”

Abbas Kitogo, Programme Specialist Energy and Climate Change, UNDP Tanzania

“The Aether team were a joy to work with and I would recommend the consultancy - the service provided throughout the process was exceptional.”

Clare Bayley, Defra

“If we have a need for any more reports in the future Aether will be first on my list.”

Alan Hardy, Kyson Design

“Aether is a great partner for work in the area of European Air Emissions. The team was committed, reliable, well organised and had a deep technical understanding and motivated other partners with their good spirit.”

Umweltbundesamt: Environment Agency Austria

“Professional team and very collaborative communication. Effective result in terms of suggestions for improvement in the quality of the inventory and proposals on how to streamline specific topics.”

Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research

“It has been a pleasure to work with Chris Dore and Richard Claxton from Aether: they did their job in a very professional and timely manner. The workshop was organized and carried out in a cooperative spirit; the information provided to the workshop participants was complete and clear.”

Alina Novikova, UN/ECE Secretariat

“It is always an absolute pleasure working with Aether. I always know what is expected of me. Their work ethic is of a very high standard and projects are always handled in a very professional manner. I have learnt many skills in terms of project management, quality control and workshop training styles from Aether and I hope to carry these principles forward in my own work. I look forward to collaborating with Aether more in the future.”

Luanne Stevens, Gondwana

Contact us

Get in touch

Call us on +44 1865 261 466, complete the short form below, or go to the Contact page

 Security code