U.K. Gets Post-Brexit EU Court Rebuke Over Air Pollution

The U.K. was handed a stinging rebuke from the European Union’s top court for failing to clean up the dirty air in big cities from London to Glasgow.

In the first EU court ruling since the U.K.’s Brexit transition ended, judges at the Luxembourg-based tribunal concluded that Britain had “systematically and persistently” exceeded annual limits on nitrogen oxide in 16 zones across the country.

“Arguments put forward by the U.K. cannot justify such long time periods for bringing to an end” the ongoing violations, the EU Court of Justice said in a binding decision Thursday.

A 2018 crackdown on dirty air by the European Commission included the U.K., Germany and France, with the EU regulator accusing them of failing to meet limits on nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, which are mostly caused by road traffic, industry, heating and agriculture. EU court judges in 2019 also ruled France had “persistently exceeded” pollution limits.

A U.K. coroner in December for the first time blamed air pollution as a significant factor in the death of a 9-year-old girl in south London, raising questions about the country’s commitment to tackling environmental problems, especially in the capital, where about 9 million people live and work. While the U.K. is no longer part of the now 27-nation EU, it remains bound by rulings in cases that were brought before its exit.

The U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it’s studying the ruling, which concerned U.K. failings up until 2017.

“Air pollution at a national level has reduced significantly since 2010,” the department said in a statement. “Now we are out of the EU, we are continuing to deliver” on a 3.8 billion-pound ($5.3 billion) “air-quality plan to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances in the shortest possible time.”

Not-for-profit legal activists ClientEarth said in a statement that the British government “has been dragging its feet for too long on the air-pollution crisis, downplaying the problem and passing the buck to local authorities.”

The solution is clean-air zones, to keep traffic pollution out, the group said.

Motors are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory problems and has been linked to premature deaths. Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic meter.

Britain has been in breach of EU air quality rules for years and the same limits continue to apply because they’ve been transposed into U.K. law. The U.K. government has said it will likely only be able to meet the required standard in 2025 -- 15 years after the deadline. Its air quality plans have been judged in court to be unlawful three times.

The case is: C-664/18, European Commission v. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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