Air pollution is the greatest cause of over 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year. In Britain, politicians lag behind this evidence and public opinion, and a lack of political action against climate change and continued environmental degradation means that civil society groups are now ensuring measures within a legal framework are being taken to meet this end… An interview with Jon Bennett from Client Earth UK.

Green European Journal: Client Earth had a recent success in April after a four year long campaign against the UK government for illegal air pollution levels. Can you talk about the successes and failures of the campaign, and what kind of challenges you faced?

Jon Bennett: Looking at the legal victory on the 29th of April, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an overnight success, as it actually began in 2011 when we issued the judicial review proceedings against the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in High Court. It went through the High Court, to the Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court, and then to the European Court of Justice, and then back to the Supreme Court for the final hearing. So there quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the legal side. It was clear from the beginning that the government was in breach of the Ambient Air Quality Directive that we built our case on. The whole process got us to the point in the end where the Supreme Court basically ordered the government to do something about it – which is what we’d been hoping for from the beginning, but it was quite a long road.

Alongside our legal work, we started the Healthy Air campaign, which we have taken a lead with. One of the things that was really interesting about it was that as the cases got noticed in the media and we got more and more media attention, we were managing to get on board some really great NGOs from the health sector and from the transportation sector in the UK. We now, with that campaign, work with British Lung Foundation, British Heart Foundation, and a number of other groups. It’s important to see this as not just a great legal victory, but also to look to the advocacy and the grassroots stuff we were able to do, because that was really valuable, too.

I don’t think it’s a secret that the government is being pretty stubborn and refusing to do anything for four or five years. It’s really disappointing that we’ve had to bring this case and we’ve had to fight it to its conclusion, and actually now, our focus has switched to making sure the government actually implement plans that are strong enough in light of the Supreme Court judgement. In April, they were told to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission by the end of the year which have to be put out to consultation. They slipped them out on a Saturday morning in mid-September, and we’ve had a good look at them, but really they’re not ambitious enough when you look at the scale of air pollution in our towns and cities.

Does the recent success of the Dutch Urgenda case give you hope?

Yes, it was absolutely fantastic to see success come out of Urgenda. Brilliantly, they brought the case with so many claimants – 900+! The ruling was visionary, and as an environmental legal organisation, we would say there are sometimes times when only courts can address these sort of overwhelming problems. They’re seeing what’s happening with the appeal but the fact that these steps are being taken is really encouraging.

When we look to the Dutch Urgenda case, the Belgian Klimatzaak case, and of course, this British Client Earth venture, do you think a trend has been set where society realises that actually politicians aren’t going to do anything, and they take control themselves?

You’re right about the trend. I think issues such as air pollution and climate change are not limited by national boundaries, so we, as an organisation, are looking to take cases in other countries and I think we probably will be doing so in the next few months. We’ve already started work in Poland against coal fired power stations and emissions there. The upsurge of interest we saw in such cases, like where Urgenda won against the Dutch government, means that it is out there and people can be inspired by it, which is of course no bad thing.

What do you think about the sustainability of the automotive industry resulting from the VW scandal? Do you think it’s likely to come under attack, or that the new lower levies imposed will let them carry on free rein, polluting the air without repercussions?

Well, I think the disappointing thing about what came out of Brussels was that no lesson seemed to be learned at all. It was a fantastic chance for governments to show they learned these lessons. The thing that I guess we’re most interested in is in the UK is an industry-wide investigation. We don’t know the extent of the problem really yet. We’ve known for a while that lab tests tend to vary wildly with the reality of pollution when they’re on the road, so I don’t think that the sheer scale of the problem has been realised yet. We need the results of this investigation and it definitely needs to be independent and transparent.

And do you think that the UK government will be likely to do anything about pollution in the wake of the VW scandal? The UK, France and Germany were instrumental in lobbying the European Parliament about reducing emission levels. What do you think this says about the lack of transparency and accountability at the state level, and do you think it demonstrates a kind of overreach of the automotive industry in terms of policy-making and influence they have over government?

Well, we’ve been working on the National Emissions Directive as well, and we’ve been really disappointed with the level of influence of the farming lobby on that side. Certainly for us, one of the shocking things was the policy that came out of Brussels on the 28th October. It is incredible that car manufacturers have failed to hit the targets that were set. It feels like, “let’s just make the targets a bit easier, just so they can hit them” has been the response.

Because of the legal and media pressure that’s been put on the government, it is at least talking about changing things now. In terms of the practicalities, however, there’s not much they’re doing differently to what they’ve done before.

In terms of the scandal, we felt like the reaction from the UK government was particularly slow. It dragged its feet, and when they did announce they were launching an investigation they chose the Vehicle Certification Agency, which is a government agency that receives funding from the Motor Industry. Any investigation into an industry’s wrongdoings should be independent and transparent, and it should be quick so they can’t brush it under the carpet. It’s certainly not independent, so it hasn’t passed that test.

I think there’s also a lot to say about how the government is talking quite a good game now about air pollution. When they put out their plans in reaction to our court win, they said it was a priority to reduce air pollution in this government and that they were looking for help from everyone because they really wanted to make a difference to air pollution. Well, I’m afraid their actions up until this point have definitely not shown that; they’ve shown the opposite. The government hasn’t really acted to clear up air pollution. Its rhetoric is about reducing air pollution, so there’s a massive disconnection between what they’re saying and what they’re actually doing.

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