Britain unveils final plan to improve air quality

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will submit its final plan for improving air quality to the European Commission on Thursday after levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide, mostly from diesel vehicles, were found to have breached EU limits.

The City of London financial district is seen from Primrose Hill as high air pollution obscures the skyline over London April 10, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The UK Supreme Court earlier this year ordered the government to submit the new plans for fighting the harmful pollutant by late December.

Under the British government’s plan, “Clean Air Zones” will be introduced in areas of Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton where pollution is most serious by 2020, the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) said.

Vehicles such as old buses, taxis, coaches and lorries have to pay a charge to enter these zones but private passenger cars will not be charged.

“Under government plans no private cars will be charged in these cities and newer vehicles that meet the latest emission standards will not need to pay,” Defra added in a statement.

Plans have already been announced to improve air quality in London by 2025, such as introducing an ultra-low emissions zone and retro-fitting buses and new taxis.

However, environmental law firm ClientEarth, which originally brought the case against the government for breaching the EU’s Air Quality Directive, said the plan falls far short of the action necessary to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

“The government’s latest plan for clean air zones doesn’t tackle all pollution from passenger cars, one of the biggest sources of poor air quality, and fails to take action in dozens of other cities where people are breathing illegal levels of pollution,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews.

ClientEarth added that it will make a legal challenge to force the government to take faster action to achieve legal pollution limits.

Nitrogen oxides reduce air quality and member states have been flouting EU limits on a range of pollutants associated with more than 400,000 premature deaths per year, according to European Commission data.

The Commission has begun 21 infringement proceedings against nations in breach of existing rules and has proposed more stringent legislation in the face of resistance from some governments.

Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Tom Heneghan