The ruling from the UK’s highest court will also put pressure on the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council to do more to reduce toxic exhaust fumes, blamed for killing over 2,000 people every year in Scotland.
Nitrogen dioxide gas and tiny sooty particles belched out by cars, lorries and buses can cause asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer and breathing problems. The pollution can also trigger heart attacks and strokes.
A study by the World Health Organisation on Tuesday estimated that air pollution is costing Europe over a trillion pounds a year. That includes the costs of over 600,000 premature deaths a year across the continent, and many more illnesses.
In a unanimous verdict from five leading judges in London, the Supreme Court agreed to issue a mandatory order requiring Westminster to prepare and deliver new air quality plans to the European Commission before the end of 2015.
The court accepted that forming a government after a closely fought election campaign “may take a little time”, said one of the judges, Lord Carnwath. But he added: “The new government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.”
The verdict is the end of a five-year court battle by Client Earth, a group of environmental lawyers. They had argued that the government was breaching European law in 16 urban areas across the UK by failing to meet agreed timetables for reducing air pollution.
In Glasgow levels of nitrogen dioxide are expected to remain in breach of safety limits on the city’s streets until 2025 - 15 years beyond the original deadline. The city’s Hope Street and Dumbarton Road have consistently ranked as some of the worst polluted streets in Scotland.
Client Earth claimed that the court ruling would save thousands of lives a year by forcing the government to clean up vehicle emissions. “We have a right to breathe clean air and the Supreme Court has upheld that right,” said the group’s lawyer, Alan Andrews.
“This ruling will benefit everyone’s health but particularly children, older people and those with existing health conditions like asthma and heart and lung disease. The next government, regardless of the political party or parties which take power, is now legally bound to take urgent action on this public health crisis.”
The case has been backed by Friends of the Earth Scotland, which is leading a campaign against air pollution. “This is a huge victory in the fight for clean air,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Emilia Hannah.
“The UK and Scottish governments have been shamefully caught trying to shirk their responsibilities,” she added. “The Scottish Government has been exposed for breaking its air quality obligations in Glasgow, resulting in devastating harm to public health.”
Hannah criticised the Scottish Government’s low emission strategy as “incomplete and unclear”. Ministers “must commit to keeping the most polluting vehicles out of city centres through introducing low emission zones by 2018”, she argued.
Yesterday’s verdict was also welcomed by the British Heart Foundation, which has researched links between pollution and heart disease. “The ruling sends a clear message to the UK Government,” said the foundation’s policy director, Mike Hobday. “They must put plans in place to clean up the UK’s dirty air.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London pointed out that air quality had significantly improved in recent years. “Work is already underway on revised plans to meet Europe Union targets on nitrogen dioxide as soon as possible,” said a Defra spokeswoman.
“It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting nitrogen dioxide limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.”
The Scottish Government insisted that, along with local authorities, it was improving air quality and developing a low emission strategy. “Data shows that significant reductions in air pollutants have been achieved since 1990 and the action we are taking will secure further reductions,” said a government spokesman.
“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 called for local authorities to be given more powers to tackle air pollution. “We know that the main source of air pollution produced within the city is from road traffic and one of the biggest culprits is buses,” said Councillor Alistair Watson, the council’s executive member for sustainability.
“Therefore an action we would like to explore with the Scottish Government is re-regulating buses. Without this our ability to make any real improvement is hampered.”
Read an earlier story about the Supreme Court case on air pollution here.