The European Commission has partly rejected the UK government’s plans to delay compliance with EU air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
The UK requested a five-year extension to the 2010 compliance deadline for 24 out of the UK’s 43 air quality zones last year (ENDS Report, September 2011). But, in a decision on 25 June, the commission rejected the request for 12 of the zones.
Seven zones (Tyneside, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol, Belfast, the south-west and south Wales) were rejected because low emission zones (LEZs) intended to reduce NO2 levels were described as optional in plans submitted to the commission. This did not show “with enough certainty” whether they would be implemented and bring about compliance.
The government’s localism agenda prevents it from ordering councils to implement LEZs, but the prospect of being fined for not assisting with compliance should provide encouragement (ENDS Report, February 2012).
The large compliance gap, of up to 22 micrograms per cubic metre of NO2, for these zones was the other reason for the rejections.
Plans for a further four zones (Brighton, Birkenhead, Preston and Swansea) were rejected because of technical discrepancies between projected annual NO2 limits and measured values. The commission could not decide whether abatement would be effective or postponement necessary because of this.
North-east Scotland was rejected on the basis of a similar discrepancy.
The commission accepted plans for Nottingham, Leicester, Portsmouth, Southend, Edinburgh, Cardiff, central Scotland and north Wales. It was not convinced that Bournemouth, Coventry, Northern Ireland and Reading needed a full five-year postponement.
The commission requested changes to Bournemouth’s air quality plan to ensure compliance by January 2013. It has also asked that those for Coventry and Northern Ireland show compliance by January 2014.
The commission’s decision means more than two thirds of the UK’s air quality zones are unlikely to comply with NO2 limits under the air quality directive by 2015. This is because the government admitted last year that 17 air quality zones are unlikely to comply with NO2 limits by this deadline.
This marks a further unravelling of government attempts to meet its legal obligations for NO2. A promise to “work towards full compliance with European air quality standards” was a key pledge in the government’s coalition agreement.
It is not clear at this stage whether the commission’s decision will lead to infringement action. An environment department (DEFRA) spokeswoman told ENDS it was “too early to say” what would happen next.
Joe Hennon, spokeman for Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, told ENDS: “it is open to the UK authorities to submit revised plans showing how they intend to meet the requirements of the Air Quality Directive.”
The government’s consultation on its NO2 plans acknowledged that 17 air quality zones, including London, Glasgow and most of England, would not comply with the air quality directive until at least 2020, and as late as 2025 in London’s case. The commission’s latest decision does not cover the status of these zones.
This is because the government said it was not obliged to apply for a time extension to the directive for those air quality zones where NO2 compliance is expected after 2015. It notified the commission separately about the zones affected in April.
The government did, however, admit in court last year that it was in breach of the directive due to its stance on these zones (ENDS Report, December 2011). But the Court of Appeal decided in June that the legality of the government’s position was an EU matter and not for UK courts to decide (ENDS Report, June 2012).
Joe Hennon confirmed to ENDS that the commission will be considering whether legal proceedings against the UK are now necessary.
Publication of the commission’s decision on Wednesday coincided with air quality hearings before the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. It is the third such hearing in as many years (ENDS Report, November 2011).
DEFRA said in written evidence to the committee that it was “increasingly challenging and expensive” to reduce air pollutants in the short timeframes required by the air quality directive. It added that improvements, particularly in urban areas, would take at least ten years.
The department blamed high NO2 levels on factors such as the part switch to diesel by the UK’s vehicle fleet and poor European vehicle emission standards.
The European Commission will review air quality legislation next year. A government minister lobbied the commission to scrap or weaken NO2 limits last year (ENDS Report, April 2011).
The commission granted a similar extension to London to give the capital more time to meet EU particulate standards. But campaign group Clean Air in London is currently trying to get this quashed (ENDS Report, March 2012).
Please note this article has been republished with the kind permission of the ENDS Report.