ClientEarth is contesting specific failures in the government’s latest air quality plan to tackle nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in UK – gaseous air pollutants produced by diesel vehicle emissions – which it produced in July.
The plan backtracks on previous commitments to order 5 cities to introduce clean air zones by 2020, says the firm.
The plan also does not require any action in 45 local authorities in England, despite them having illegal levels of air pollution.
Commenting after Mr Justice Nicklin ordered the case to be heard in the High Court, ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: "We're not surprised that the judge has ruled that the government has a case to answer here. The current plans are too weak and too vague and mean that we will still be choking on illegal levels of pollution for years to come.
"The government's persistent failure to deal with air pollution in this country is nothing short of a scandal."
Thornton said the government has identified at least 80 local authorities with illegal and harmful levels of air pollution but more than half of them are missing from the plans.
"We have made progress with the government, which before we started our legal case was doing nothing, but air pollution has a serious effect on people's health, the environment and the economy and more must be done.”
Client Earth has twice forced ministers to produce new plans to tackle the problem through legal actions, with rulings from the Supreme Court in 2015 and from the High Court in 2016.
Evidence on air pollution’s links to higher mortality and lung and heart disease has been building over the past year as scientists have released several damning studies.
The medical journal The Lancet produced research in October to show that nearly one in ten (8.39%) deaths last year in the UK were connected to pollution.
It represents a higher proportion of deaths from pollution than many other European countries including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
The High Court order issued on 5 December – requiring the case to be heard before 23 February next year - comes as ministers scrabbled to defend their policy positions on air quality in a joint inquiry. At a meeting held on 30 November, Transport Committee Chair, Lilian Greenwood, challenged the Treasury secretary Andrew Jones over ‘mixed messages’ the government was giving on air pollution to consumers.
“Last week [in the Budget] we saw that fuel duty was frozen for the eighth year in a row, and we know that that cost an estimated £46 billion in total. Why are you allocating only small funding increases for air quality initiatives but sacrificing many times that amount by failing to deliver on plans to raise fuel duty levels, particularly on polluting diesel? What message does that send to consumers?”
Andrew Jones, responded that there was a £3.5 billion commitment on air quality and cleaner transport and a £220 million clean air fund contained in the Budget. He said “we want to go much further than” legal compliance.
Government Air Quality plans for NO2 here