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Final warning from Europe on Britain's dirty air

Motorway headlights

Britain has received a final warning from the European Commission over its failure to meet air quality regulations.

Britain has 16 offending nitrogen dioxide (NO2) omission zones, including London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, with most pollution coming from transport. If the UK – one of five EU countries to receive the warning – does not take steps to reduce emissions within two months, it could be taken to the European Court of Justice.

Last year the High Court ruled that the government had broken the law by failing to tackle high levels of NO2 across the UK. Campaign group ClientEarth, which brought the case last year, welcomed the warning.

“Our High Court victory against the government in November of last year means ministers have to produce draft plans by April 24 to clean up our air as soon as possible,” said ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton.

“With this final warning from the Commission, the government is under pressure from all sides to stop dithering and act decisively to meet its moral and legal obligations to clean up our unhealthy air.”

Most emissions result from road traffic and cause more than 400,000 premature deaths across the EU each year. Suggested measures to tackle pollution include using more electric vehicles, reducing the number of cars on the roads and in particular reducing emissions from diesel vehicles.

London mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced two new electric bus routes to cut air pollution – from 2018 only hybrid or zero-emission double-decker buses will be used in the capital.

Road traffic is responsible for around 40% of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in the EU. Of that, around 80% comes from diesel powered vehicles.

A spokesperson for the government said it was firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions.

“That’s why we have committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles and support greener transport schemes, and set out how we will improve air quality through a new programme of clean air zones,” said the spokesperson.

“We will update our air quality plans in the spring to further improve the nation’s air quality.”

EU NO2 offenders

  • Germany: 28 poor air quality zones, including Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Köln.
  • France: 19 zones, among them Paris, Marseille and Lyon.
  • United Kingdom: 16 zones, with London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow all listed.
  • Italy: 12 zones, including Rome, Milan and Turin.
  • Spain: three zones, one being Madrid and two covering Barcelona.

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