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Simon Birkett
Posted on 12 Aug 2007 4:33 pm


“The cross-party campaign to achieve urgently at least World Health Organisation recommended standards of air quality throughout London”

Petition the Prime Minister for Clean Air:

Campaign website:

CAMPAIGN UPDATE: 12 August 2007


The European Commission has written to the Campaign for Clean Air in London at Commissioner Dimas’ request replying to its letter dated 12 May 2007 urging him to ask the European Court of Justice to commence enforcement action against the United Kingdom (UK) for breaching European Union (EU) legal limits for air quality for which no time extensions or derogations are allowed. Both letters appear at the end of this Campaign Update.

In its letter to Commissioner Dimas, the Campaign for Clean Air in London said:

“Respectfully, if the European Commission does not act in the way we are requesting it will raise serious concerns about the likelihood of any European Union enforcement action related to Air Pollution whether for air quality, for carbon dioxide emissions for cars or in respect of climate change. Please set an example now in respect of air quality that will reassure European citizens about their future.”

Simon Birkett, Principal Contact for the Campaign for Clean Air in London, said today:

“We welcome news that the European Commission has written to the UK requesting information on the measures it intends to take to improve the [air quality] situation and to meet the requirements in the Air Quality Directives. Significantly, we believe that the UK has received also from the European Commission a Letter of Formal Notice in respect of breaches of EU legal limits for sulphur dioxide. The latter is a first step in legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations. We asked Defra [i.e. the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] for confirmation of this news more than a week ago and are still awaiting a reply.”

The dangers of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide

EU legal limits for particulate matter (PM10) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) have been due to be met throughout the UK since 1999 legislation by January 2005 with no possibility of time extensions or derogations.

Particulate matter is created by a wide range of sources including road vehicles, domestic heating (coal and wood fuels), quarrying and other industrial sources. There is considerable evidence that it is associated with death, admissions to hospital for the treatment of both respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and symptoms among patients suffering from asthma. Transport for London’s consultation for the Low Emission Zone showed that some 1,392,000 people were affected by breaches of EU legal limits for particulate matter in 2005 and that, without further action, this number could be 96,000 in 2012 and still 46,000 in 2015.

SO2 emissions arise mainly from coal fired power stations (65%) and combustion generally. It is an irritant gas that, in high concentrations, provokes narrowing of the airways. There is also evidence that long term exposure to SO2 itself may be linked to losses in life expectancy and that sulphate particles, produced by oxidation of SO2, may increase the risk of death. Defra’s new Air Quality Strategy shows, on pages 72 and 73 of Volume 2, that some 25 square kilometres of the UK breached EU legal limits for SO2 in 2005 affecting some 4,000 people with no reduction in the number of people affected by 2020.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is formed mainly by combustion processes in particular road transport and the electricity supply industry. It is a toxic gas that is a proxy for the presence of many other air pollutants and the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States says that its health concerns include effects on breathing and the respiratory system, damage to lung tissue and premature death. NO2 reacts with other chemicals to form a wide variety of toxic products some of which may cause biological mutations. Although EU legal limits for NO2 are not due to be met until January 2010, Defra’s new Air Quality Strategy shows on page 52 of Volume 2 that some 55 square kilometres of London are expected to breach EU legal limits for NO2 with some 319,000 people affected in 2010. These numbers fall to 38 square kilometres and 155,000 people respectively by 2020 and may be underestimates since they use a “high” base year of 2003 for forecasting.

Key issues in relation to the European Commission’s response and generally

1. A recent World Health Organisation report shows that the UK has the second highest death rate from air pollution in Western European behind The Netherlands:

2. There is no doubt that the UK breached EU legal limits for PM10 or SO2 in 2005. Defra has highlighted the SO2 legal breaches in its recent Air Quality Strategy and Mayor Livingstone has made no secret of the widespread breaches of EU legal limits for PM10 in London in 2005. See page 2:

3. In general, while the Government refers to reduced air pollution since 1999, a much more important trend is the evidence of worsening air pollution in recent years. For example, see a Defra report on Sustainable Indicators:

and a Government statement on “Greater action needed to deliver cleaner air”:

4. The health consequences of air pollution are much more serious than most of us have realised with over 1,000 premature deaths a year in London. This is more than four times the number of people who die annually from road traffic accidents in London. Contrast it too with the legal and parliamentary time committed to tackling passive smoking in the workplace which caused some 617 premature deaths per year across the whole UK:

The EU Environment Commission estimates that particulate matter causes some 350,000 premature deaths a year across Europe. See:

Recent US research highlighted on the BBC and elsewhere emphasises the serious impact of diesel fumes on health i.e. particulate matter from diesel plus cholesterol is "one plus one equals three not two". Please see link to recent story on the BBC:

5. Particulate matter produced by diesel engines is at the heart of many air quality problems. A recent report by the Air Quality Expert Group (page 186) shows that diesel passenger cars produce, over their life cycle, some 17% less carbon dioxide (CO2) but over 65% more each of the hazardous particulate matter and nitrogen oxides:

Amazingly, a Written Answer by Minister of State Stephen Ladyman on 25 June 2007 shows diesel engines for passenger cars producing 16.9 times more particulate matter and over 83% more nitrogen oxides than the petrol equivalents (with 4.3 % less carbon dioxide).

We were so alarmed by these statistics that we checked Hansard which confirmed them:

California is so worried about the health effects of particulate matter that it aims to reduce diesel emissions of particulate matter by 85% by 2020 (see press release below) whereas the UK is expecting diesel emissions to grow by about 50% between 2002 and 2020 (see page 183 of the AQEG report referred to above) with a 54% only reduction in particulate matter! Is the UK taking the public health risks of diesel engine emissions seriously?

6. Air pollution needs to be tackled holistically with sensible judgements being made in the inevitable trade-offs between air quality and climate change. A classic example is the latest Department for Transport “Act on CO2” calculator which is likely to encourage people to choose cars with diesel engines because of their small CO2 (i.e. climate change) advantage even though that generate substantially more of the hazardous particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. We should question whether there is still a place for diesel engines in large cities while there is such a serious public health problem.

Instead, we recommend a simple approach to these complicated air pollution trade-offs in cities. Simon Birkett said there should be an “Air Pollution Trade-off Principle”:

“Treating air pollution holistically requires difficult trade-off decisions between air quality and climate change issues. The Campaign for Clean Air in London encourages policy makers to accept a disbenefit of up to 5% in climate change terms provided there is an associated benefit of over 50% in air quality terms (and vice versa) i.e. one to 10. Such an approach to trade-offs should be considered acceptable since large benefits may be hard to find and small disbenefits can be rectified relatively easily through other policy measures.”

7. We do not accept the approach to Environmental Justice taken by the UK Government or the European Commission in respect of air pollution hotspots. In our view, everyone is entitled to: (i) the same minimum protections (i.e. Limit Values); (ii) no worsening of air pollution; and (iii) ongoing improvements (whether through exposure reduction or otherwise). We do not understand the European Commission’s reference to “spatial representativeness” since our understanding is that the current EU legal limits must be met everywhere. For the record, the Campaign for Clean Air in London does not consider that the UK Government has made or is yet planning to make reasonable efforts to achieve the EU legal limits for air quality. See our recent article “No political will in new UK Air Quality Strategy”.

8. The Draft Climate Change Bill makes only two, incidental references to air quality - saying only that tackling climate change might have air quality benefits! We urge the UK Government to include measures in the forthcoming legislation that will require and empower the Committee on Climate Change to consider air pollution holistically in its assessments and recommendations.

Legal Process for enforcing European Union obligations

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action
against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law
that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Action needed to address a serious public health “crisis” in London

Simon Birkett, Principal Contact for the Campaign for Clean Air in London, said:

“We urge the European Commission to play its part in addressing a serious public health “crisis” in London by taking the next legal steps on enforcement action against the UK Government unless the UK demonstrates within two months that it will rectify quickly all breaches of EU legal limits for air quality in a way that is likely to take account fully of worsening weather patterns.

“In particular, we urge the European Commission to take action as necessary against the UK in relation to London (and other UK cities if appropriate) as a “specific location” including in respect of further breaches of EU legal limits for air quality in respect of 2006 (once formal notification of those breaches is sent to the European Commission by the end of September 2007).

“Mayor Livingstone admits that there were over 1,031 premature deaths in London from particulate matter alone in 2005. This is more than four times the number of people that died from road traffic accidents in London in the same period and well over the 617 premature deaths annually across the UK as a whole, caused by passive smoking at work before new legislation was implemented to ban workplace smoking.

“With EU legal limits for air quality due since 1999 legislation to be met by January 2005 (for particulate matter and sulphur dioxide) and January 2010 (for nitrogen dioxide), we urge the UK Government and all the candidates for the Mayoral election in 2008, including Mayor Livingstone, to pledge that London will achieve sustainably at least World Health Organisation recommended standards of air quality throughout London by no later than the London 2012 Summer Olympics. In practice, these are the same as the EU’s legal limits for air quality.

“China has seen recently how seriously the International Olympic Committee takes the air quality issue and London cannot credibly claim to host the “greenest games in modern times” if it does not achieve these standards sustainably by 2012. If London fails to capitalise on the momentum behind the London 2012 Olympic Games, it is likely still to be making the same excuses in 2022. In this regard, we were disappointed to find no references to “air quality” in Your 2012 published recently and a downgrading of ambition from the “greenest Games in modern times” to no more than “a green Games”.

“Separately, we support, in principle, the proposed Emissions Related Congestion Charging scheme to the extent it will encourage a shift from larger and dirtier vehicles to smaller and cleaner vehicles in an approach that tackles air pollution holistically and delivers meaningful improvements in air quality. We want to see a similarly more sophisticated approach to the road pricing element of congestion charging that uses a “tag and beacon” system instead of the current “blunt instrument” approach. We plan to read the consultation documents carefully and submit a detailed and considered response in due course.”

Simon Birkett
Principal Contact
Campaign for Clean Air in London

Contact Simon through the BBC Action Network for a copy of the European Directive: Air Pollution Scorecard

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