Plans to cut dangerous levels of air pollution from traffic across large parts of urban Scotland have been delayed by five years, putting the UK and Scottish governments at risk of multi-million pound fines for breaching environmental law.
Glasgow is not now expected to comply with air pollution safety limits until 2025, while Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and other conurbations won’t meet the limits until 2020. The delays mean Scotland has become deeply embroiled in a major legal case that has already found the UK government guilty of breaking air pollution law.
The delays have appalled environmentalists, who warn that thousands more people living in Scotland’s cities will suffer and die as a result. For the Scottish government, they were “disappointing”, while local authorities stressed the work they were doing to cut pollution.
Toxic particles from vehicle exhausts are blamed for killing at least 1,600 people a year in Scotland, and 166,000 a year across Western Europe. They can trigger heart attacks, aggravate lung diseases and cause infections.
The UK, along with other countries in Europe, agreed to an air pollution law that required levels of nitrogen dioxide gas in cities to be brought below safety limits by 2010. But because it had difficulties meeting this target, it applied for extensions until 2015.
In 2011 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) accepted that Glasgow, along with other polluted urban areas in England, would not actually meet the target until 2020. This prompted the European Commission to launch a major legal action against the UK in February this year.
But now, however, Defra has revealed that the situation has become far worse. Earlier this month it released a new set of “more pessimistic” official projections showing that the Glasgow urban area is not expected to comply with the pollution standards until 2025.
Another three large areas – Edinburgh, Central Scotland and North East Scotland – had previously been expected to comply with the extended deadline of 2015. But now, according to the new Defra projections, the air their citizens breath will not meet safety limits until 2020.
This means that for the first time these three areas, which include Aberdeen, Dundee, Falkirk, Perth and many other towns, become implicated in a second legal action being brought against the UK government by the environmental lawyers, ClientEarth.
Last year, this led to the UK Supreme Court declaring the UK government in breach of its legal duty to meet nitrogen dioxide safety limits. The UK court has now asked the European Court of Justice to rule on what remedial action it can compel the government to take.
Experts say the UK government could end up being fined hundreds of thousands of pounds a day for the breaches. It would then be likely to ask the Scottish government to pay its share of the fines for the breaches north of the border.
“Our case now has even wider significance for air quality throughout the UK,” said ClientEarth’s lawyer, Alan Andrews. “Unless the government comes up with a plan to tackle pollution from road traffic, people north and south of the border will suffer from illegal levels of pollution for decades to come. More people will die or be made seriously ill as a result.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that Scotland was breaking European law on air pollution. “These delays see the prospect of clean air slipping over the horizon for people living in Scottish towns and cities,” said the environmental group’s air pollution campaigner, Emilia Hanna.
“It is unbelievable that we will have to wait another six years for clean air in Edinburgh and even worse that we have to wait until 2025 for clean air in Glasgow. These delays mean there is no end in sight for the thousands of Scots who suffer from air pollution.”
Hanna pointed out that air pollution could stunt the development of children’s lungs and prevent them reaching their full potential. “It is appalling to think that children entering their first year of primary school this August will have finished secondary school by the time Glasgow has clean air,” she said.
“The Scottish government has thus far proved itself unwilling to take the steps necessary to tackle this public health crisis. It should be cutting traffic levels by halting unnecessary new road developments, investing more in walking and cycling, and improving public transport.”
The Scottish government defended its role in trying to cut air pollution. “These revised projections from Defra are very disappointing as previous projections suggested that all parts of Scotland would comply with legal limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution from traffic within the next couple of years,” said a spokeswoman.
“Although the UK, as member state, is ultimately responsible for its failure to comply with the nitrogen dioxide limits in the European air quality directive, Scotland takes our EU obligations very seriously.”
She argued that Scotland had been working hard with local authorities and others to make “significant improvements” in air quality in recent years. “Our action plans set out the work being done to meet European Union standards in the shortest possible time.”
The City of Edinburgh Council’s environment convener, councillor Lesley Hinds, accepted that improving air quality was “a significant challenge for all major cities”. The council was still working towards complying with the safety limits by 2015, she said.
“We are acutely aware that there is still much to be done and although recent data shows that the situation does seem to be getting better in the capital, we are anything but complacent,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“The capital boasts an excellent public transport system, now bolstered by the start of tram passenger services, and we’ve been pleased to work closely with operators to ensure their vehicles are environmentally-friendly, with increasing numbers of hybrid buses coming in.”
The council was also encouraging commuters to walk or cycle to work, and lorries to cut their pollution. “We’ll be liaising with Edinburgh employers to encourage them to follow the council’s lead in reducing the need for employees to travel, for example by encouraging home or remote working for staff,” Hinds said.
Glasgow City Council also highlighted what it was doing to try and reduce traffic fumes. It has two pilot projects to fit sensors to street lights to monitor air pollution levels.
“The real time information will help identify the reason for spikes such as taxis failing to turn their engines off at ranks, or buses sitting with their engines running at bus stops,” said a council spokeswoman. “This will enable faster action to be taken in specific locations.”
Aberdeen City Council said it was reducing pollution by managing traffic in the city centre, starting a car club and launching a fleet of hydrogen buses. “The Aberdeen western peripheral route is also expected to improve air quality by diverting traffic from the city centre,” said a council spokesman.
“While we understand that clean air is essential for health and helps to make the city a pleasant place to live, it is not just the responsibility of the city council. Everyone can play their part by considering their travel habits and making small, meaningful changes where appropriate.”
Craig Melville, convener of Dundee City Council's environment committee, pointed out that the North East Scotland zone included eight local authorities and did not give compliance dates for individual cities. “We are continuing to work towards improving local air quality through implementing the measures contained in our air quality action plan,” he said.
Douglas Duff, Falkirk Council’s head of environmental services, emphasised that it was working with others to meet air quality objectives. “If any updates to the action plans are found to be necessary, these will be implemented in due course,” he said.
According to Perth and Kinross Council, it was as yet unclear how Defra’s new projections affected its area. “We will continue to implement plans to monitor air pollution levels and to bring forward measures to try to improve air quality at affected locations,” said a council spokeswoman.
The delays in reducing air pollution to meet legal safety limits
Area / pollution compliance date forecast in 2011 / pollution compliance date forecast in 2014
Glasgow urban area / 2020 / 2025
Edinburgh urban area / 2015 / 2020
Central Scotland / 2015 / 2020
North East Scotland / 2015 / 2020