The environment group, Client Earth, is taking the UK government to court for allowing lethal and illegal levels of toxic gases belched out by vehicle exhausts to persist in the city centre.
Glasgow is one of 16 UK cities breaching European air pollution law. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause breathing problems, are expected to remain in breach of safety limits on the city’s streets until 2025, 15 years beyond the original deadline.
Westminster’s official air pollution warning service predicts that nitrogen dioxide levels in Glasgow this year could be almost twice the legal limits. In recent years Hope Street and Dumbarton Road have consistently ranked as some of the worst polluted streets in Scotland.
An expert report last year backed by the UK Department of Health estimated that pollution from tiny, sooty particles emitted by traffic caused more than 300 premature deaths a year in Glasgow. A rating last month by international environmental groups awarded the city an ‘F’ for its poor efforts in tackling the problem.
The Supreme Court hearing in London on Thursday is the culmination of a four-year legal battle on air pollution across the UK. It follows a major ruling last year from the European Court of Justice, which said that the UK must meet air quality standards in the “shortest possible time”.
Client Earth’s lawyer, Alan Andrews, said that air pollution was causing a public health crisis. “Air pollution in the UK is an invisible killer, causing 29,000 early deaths every year, heart attacks, asthma attacks, strokes, and cancer,” he said.
“Politicians in Holyrood and Westminster need to work together to find a solution. Levels of pollution in Glasgow are not only harmful to health, they’re also illegal. We need to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles out of city centres to protect our children.”
Client Earth had taken the case to the Supreme Court to try and get judges to force governments to act, Andrews said. He is calling on the court to order new plans to be drawn up showing how pollution levels will be reduced.
The case is backed by Friends of the Earth Scotland, which has led a campaign to cut air pollution. “Glasgow’s performance on tackling air pollution has been abysmal to date,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Emilia Hannah.
She pointed out that of the 17 measures being put forward by the city council to improve air quality, 11 are officially expected to have a “low” impact, five a “low to medium” impact, and just one a “medium” impact. “It’s very poor,” she commented.
According to Hannah, European safety limits were also being breached in Edinburgh, central and northeast Scotland. Friends of the Earth Scotland is calling for the Scottish Government to introduce “low emission zones” to ban the most polluting vehicles from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee by 2018.
Holyrood’s current plans “lack vision and clarity”, she argued. “To tackle deadly air pollution the strategy must reduce traffic levels and improve vehicle emission standards,” she continued.
“The Scottish Government needs to make a legal requirement that low emission zones be implemented in major cities. It also needs to provide the cash to city councils to enable them to happen.”
The Scottish Government accepted that there were problems but stressed that improvements had been made. A consultation on a draft low emission strategy concluded last week, and responses are now being analysed.
“Working in partnership with Scotland's 32 local authorities, we continue to make progress in improving our air quality,” said a government spokeswoman. “Data shows that significant reductions in air pollutants have been achieved since 1990 and the action we are taking will secure further reductions.”
But she added: “Although there has been very good progress, we recognise that there is more to be done to deliver further health and environmental benefits where areas of poorer air quality remain.”
Glasgow City Council argued that there was a limit to what councils could do. “The issues around air quality are often directed towards local authorities, but the really big policy drivers are in the hands of central or devolved government,” said a council spokeswoman.
“Councils need to be given the appropriate powers and resources to address these issues. We need to work together to reduce our air pollution levels, improve the health and well-being of our citizens and the council cannot do this alone.”