Efforts to combat air pollution in London have been around since the Middle Ages. In 1307, King Edward II declared that “whoever shall be found guilty of burning coal [in the City] shall suffer the loss of his head.” Three hundred years later, English author John Evelyn published one of the earliest known publications on air pollution, entitled “Fumifugium: or, the Inconveniencie of Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated.”
Evelyn wrote in his diaries that in London, “the ascent of the smoke was so filled with the [sooty] steam of the coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast so as one could scarcely breathe.”
In the 19th century, Parliament took some measures to investigate nuisances arising from smoke pollution. However, as smoke was essential to England’s rapidly-growing industrial economy, and because the physicians were still unable to prove that air pollution was linked to health problems, there was little political will or social pressure to justify tough action.
This remained the status quo until the 1950s, when in December 1952, London experienced the Great Smog. A combination of cold winter weather, heavy fog, and chimney smoke from households burning coal led to the worst air pollution event in British history. Up to 12,000 people are believed to have died as a result, with a further 100,000 being taken seriously ill. In response, scientific research into the environmental increased, awareness grew of the relationship between air quality and health, and of course, more substantial government regulations were introduced.
Nevertheless, air pollution is still estimated to have an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths each year and is expected to reduce life expectancy of everyone in the UK by 6 months on average, at a cost of around £16 billion per year (UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs).
Earlier this year, activist environmental lawyers at ClientEarth took the UK Government to court over its failure to meet air quality standards established by European Union law. The Air Quality Directive sets legally binding limits for major air pollutants that impact public health, including Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) which is produced by road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.
Scientists at King’s College London have said that many roads in central London have the highest concentrations of NO2 in the world due to the large number of diesel vehicles and narrow streets with tall buildings.
The current plans from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) would see the UK achieve compliance for NO2 limits by 2030 – which is 20 years after the original EU legal deadline of January 2010.
The Mayor of London published a report by King’s College London in July 2015 with the world’s first estimates for the number of deaths attributable to long-term exposure to NO2 . They estimated 9,400 deaths from fine particles and NO2 in London in 2010, making air pollution worse than smoking for the first time.
Lord Carnwath reasoned that there was no doubt in the seriousness of the breach, or the responsibility of the UK Supreme Court to secure compliance. He concluded that the Government needs to take immediate action, and ordered that new plans must be delivered to the European Commission by 31 December 2015.
Alan Andrews is the Partner at ClientEarth who has been leading this legal battle since 2011. Following the decision he said, “obviously we set EU law precedent, and we hope that’s going to allow citizens to go before national courts and uphold their right to breathe clean air, but also to enforce other environmental laws.”
Read the full judgement of R (on the application of ClientEarth) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) here.