Towns and cities across the UK have air pollution levels far above the EU legal limit – and it’s costing thousands of lives every year. Meet the legal team determined to do something about it.

A top environmental law firm is holding the Government to account over illegal air pollution levels. ClientEarth has been given High Court permission to pursue legal action against Defra (Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs) over its failure to tackle the problem. The legal challenge names Liz Truss, the UK Environment Secretary, as the defendant and so far the Government has spent £105,000 in legal fees defending her – money which could have been used to fund clean air initiatives.

Air quality across the UK is poor and the high level of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide is a particular concern. ClientEarth won a Supreme Court victory against the Government in April last year, forcing it to do more to tackle air pollution. Just before the last general election, the court ordered the new Government to take urgent action on reducing nitrogen dioxide levels.

ClientEarth now claims Defra’s response is inadequate and isn’t improving air quality as quickly as it could – and the lawyers are taking the Government back to court. The published air quality plans fall a long way short of the action necessary to comply with EU air pollution law and wouldn’t improve UK air quality to the standard of legal limits until 2025. Part of the problem is that cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool have been left out of Defra’s commitment to introduce ‘Clean Air Zones’ in city centres – when all three cities have issues with high nitrogen dioxide levels.

Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant released by burning fossil fuels and in cities the most significant source of nitrogen dioxide is road traffic. Chronic exposure to high levels of this pollutant causes health issues and is particularly dangerous for at-risk groups such as the elderly and people with asthma. Nitrogen dioxide is also a major component of photochemical smog, which also poses major health risks. The Government’s own data estimates that air pollution causes 40,000 – 50,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. London’s new Mayor Sadiq Khan has added his voice to the support for ClientEarth’s legal action against the Government.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “The Mayor was elected on a mandate to clean up London’s air. ClientEarth’s legal challenges are holding the Government to account on air pollution and as the Mayor of the biggest city in the country Sadiq Khan very much considers himself an interested party in the judicial review.”

Action on air pollution can’t come soon enough for London, where ClientEarth has named and shamed 20 ‘black spots’ where air pollution levels far exceed EU limits.

Defra insists that tackling air pollution is a priority. However, ClientEarth and other campaign groups claim Defra’s plans are too weak to deal with the problem and won’t reduce levels of toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide fast enough. The date for the first court hearing has not yet been set but it’s likely to take place sometime this summer. It remains to be seen whether, after years of legal action, this challenge with Sadiq Khan’s backing is enough to finally push air quality to the top of the Government’s agenda where it belongs.