Simon Birkett_Head and shoulders 150113 V2. . . as it hears the most important air pollution case for a generation.

The Met Office’s five day forecast this morning predicted ‘Moderate’ or ‘High’ air pollution in London every day this week.

Its forecast of ‘High’ 7/10 air pollution for Thursday coincides with ClientEarth’s battle in the Supreme Court to force the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to comply with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limit values that have been in legislation since 1999 and required to be complied with by January 2010. The UK has refused even to apply for a time extension until January 2015 for 16 of 43 UK zones to comply with these requirements as allowed by Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe.

The Met Office’s excellent air pollution forecasts, used by the BBC and others, do not include urban roadside locations. Air pollution is likely to be higher at such locations including Westminster.The Government downplays the health impacts of NO2, failing to mention that it is the only ‘modern’ molecule within the whole gaseous component of air pollution subject to World Health Organisation guidelines and legal limits. Whereas the particle component of air pollution is regulated by its total mass concentration, gases other than NO2 are largely ignored. It is vital therefore that levels of NO2 are reduced to avoid: its direct health effects and those of other toxic pollutants from combustion; and its contribution with nitrogen monoxide as a precursor to the formation of deadly particles. Sulphur dioxide, which is also regulated, has been largely eliminated as a problem by the use of ultra low sulphur fuels.

Policy Exchange has estimated that diesel vehicles are responsible for 91% of dangerous airborne particles (PM2.5) and 95% of NO2 exhaust emissions from road transport in London.

NO2 laws are the most powerful tool citizens have to hammer down carcinogenic diesel exhaust and other toxic pollutants from combustion. NO2 laws are breached by a factor of two or three near London’s busiest streets.

Air pollution is also an equality issue. Policy Exchange found, in its report titled Something in the Air: The forgotten crisis of Britain’s poor air quality that in the worst 10% of London for NO2, 5-10 year old children are 47% more likely than the London average to be eligible for free school meals and residents are 26% more likely than the London average to be on income support.

Levels of NO2 in London are the highest of any capital city in Europe. But this is not just a London problem.  The UK has the highest proportions of zones exceeding the NO2 annual limit value plus margin of tolerance of any country in Europe. And yet, nothing is being done.

Let’s hope the Supreme Court rules in favour of ClientEarth’s legal challenge. If the Supreme Court does not require the UK to produce committed new measures to tackle air pollution, we will need to rely again on the European Commission to protect us.


  1. Met Office forecast for London
  2. Useful links and introduction to smog episodes by Clean Air in London
  3. Clean Air in London: Campaigning to achieve urgently and sustainably full compliance with World Health Organisation guidelines for air quality throughout London and elsewhere.