Britain’s Plans to Fight Air Pollution is “Weak and Incoherent”
James Thornton of Client Earth explains that Britain has one of the worst records in air pollution in Europe and the government’s plan of “malign neglect” will do nothing to reverse this
KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. The UK government has produced a weak and incoherent air quality plan, which lacks the ambition and detail to tackle Britain’s illegal levels of air pollution. This damning indictment of the British government’s proposal to tackle lethal levels of air pollution comes from the UK based environmental law firm called Client Earth. This, quote, “Weak and incoherent plan was itself only released after the high court ordered the UK government to do so before the British general election.” The United Kingdom is second only to Italy for the highest number of annual deaths from air pollution in Europe, and with the Royal College of Physicians reporting that a shocking 40,000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution in the UK.
Joining us today to discuss this legal saga involving air pollution in the UK, we’re joined with James Thornton. James is the founder and he’s also the chief executive of the first and biggest public interest environmental law group in Europe called Client Earth. James, we want to welcome you to the Real News today. Thank you.
JAMES THORNTON: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
KIM BROWN: So Client Earth has condemned the UK government’s air quality plan in no uncertain terms, so what precisely have you called both weak and incoherent?
JAMES THORNTON: Well, a little background. The UK has a law requiring it to clean up the air. You mentioned the horrible statistic, which is the government’s own statistic, of 40,000 people a year dying early every year from air pollution related events, and that’s completely crazy in any first world country, terrible in any country, but the law requires the UK to have already been in compliance with limits since 2010. The government keeps saying, “It’s too difficult. It’s really something we need to keep thinking about, but we can’t quite take the measures,” but what’s really important to understand is cleaning up the air is not rocket science. It’s pretty simple.
The main problem there, which is different from the US … We actually have better air in our cities in the US than in the EU, because the EU fell in love with diesel, diesel cars, diesel trucks, so you have all of these diesel engines in all the major cities and small cities pumping out really quite noxious stuff, fine particles, which go through your lungs, actually wind up crossing the blood brain barrier and going into your brain. Then also NO2, nitrogen dioxide, which is a toxic poison gas linked to strokes and heart attacks, and in children it prevents … It’s quite clear, the science is clear, that it prevents children who are exposed to it in illegal amounts from ever having their lungs grow to full size. These are tragedies.
Now, why the British government isn’t doing anything is hard to know. It’s being very irresponsible. You know the phrase benign neglect. In my mind in the UK the government is now guilty of malign neglect. It’s not benign at all. It’s malign. They know what they’re doing, and they’re refusing to correct the situation.
KIM BROWN: James, rightly or wrongly, the perception, I would imagine, from most Americans is that Europe is pretty progressive, progressive on healthcare, progressive on drug policy, some countries, so it’s a little bit of a shock to hear that the UK and Europe at large is not all that progressive when it comes to monitoring air quality and ensuring that air pollution is not killing its citizens, but the British government did not willingly come out with this air pollution plan. In fact, this is merely the latest development in a long series of legal challenges brought by Client Earth, so can you briefly describe the background in this case?
JAMES THORNTON: Sure. Now, as I was mentioning, the government had, it’s a real clear legal duty they had to comply with, to clean up the air to a certain level of cleanliness by 2010. That’s now seven years ago. In 2010 we wrote to the British government saying, “You …” They actually do monitor very well. We have all of the numbers on the pollution, so the government’s own numbers show how badly they’re in violation. We wrote a very polite letter. When I moved to the UK from the US I became an English lawyer, and I learned how to be a polite English lawyer. Before you sue somebody you write them a very nice letter, so we wrote a very nice letter saying, “You’ve got this legal duty. Surely you’re going to comply with it. Are you not?” They wrote back and they said, “We have no intention of complying whatsoever until at least 2025,” that’s 15 years late, knowing that 40,000 people a year are suffering. 2025 I read as, well, the next generation of politicians.
We said, “Okay. We have to go to court.” We took them to court, and we went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the UK and got an injunction against the UK. It’s only the second time the Supreme Court has ever given an injunction against the government in the UK, because they took it so seriously. That was to issue a plan by the end of 2015 that would bring the country into compliance as soon as possible. They issued that plan, but it was a really lax plan, so as you mentioned early on, we had to go back to court to enforce the injunction. They were ordered to come out with a new plan on April 24th. That’s a Monday. On the Friday night before, after the court closed, they rushed to court and begged for a few more months saying because Theresa May, the prime minister, had called a snap election, they could delay, because they have what are called purdah rules.
Now, purdah is a word of Indian origin that means a curtain that’s put in front of a wealthy woman to prevent poor people from seeing her. The British government used the word to describe their own activity of preventing anything confrontational or controversial from being released during an election time. We said, “This is nonsense. They have to meet the court’s deadline.” The court agreed with us. We were back in court a couple weeks ago, and the court issued actually the first opinion about what purdah means, and he said, “Look. It’s perfectly clear that this is a rule the government made up to regulate its own conduct. It’s not the rule of law, and the government can’t hide behind its own rule when it’s in breach of the law. It can’t delay compliance, and it particularly can’t delay when I’ve given an order to issue a plan by a certain date,” so they were forced to issue the plan.
We saw the plan. The plan is no better then the plan was in December, 2015. You know, it’s shocking really. Now, the UK isn’t uniquely bad in Europe. There are a lot of other … the big cities are in violation. You’re right. From an American point of view it’s amazing. I was shocked moving from America to the EU to find that out, but again, it’s this love affair that they have with diesel vehicles there. Luckily we didn’t go that direction here. Volkswagen was trying to ram diesel vehicles down American consumers’ throats, and the EPA looked at them, and that’s when the Volkswagen scandal broke. It’s very, very nice that the EPA actually looked harder at this than the European governmental agencies were doing, but in any case, we’ve had to bring a whole series of lawsuits, having won the original case in the UK against governments, Germany, Belgium, Italy. We’re going to march into Eastern Europe and try and clean up there.
KIM BROWN: James, the UK has Europe’s second highest air pollution levels, so how is it that things have gotten to this state, and why has the conservative government been dragging its feet when it comes to dealing with such a deadly threat to the British public?
JAMES THORNTON: Well, the diesel thing actually has been going on for awhile. People thought that they were doing a good thing originally, because diesel engines can produce less CO2 for a given amount of energy than petrol or gasoline engines, but they are filthy in terms of pollution, and gasoline engines are much more efficient than they were a couple of decades ago, so it’s not really something to worry about, although we should be moving to clean transport.
The government in the UK actually encouraged people to buy diesel cars, and the manufacturers invested heavily in diesel, Volkswagen, but all the others as well. They have developed lines and lines of Diesel engines, diesel vehicles, and it’s in their interest to keep selling them. They’ve been lobbying very hard to not change the rules, and indeed when the British government lost to us in court, in the Supreme Court, they immediately ran to Brussels and tried to raise the pollution limits, so it wouldn’t have to do anything in order to reduce air pollution and could still say that it was compliant.
The governments have been bamboozled by the car manufacturers, but they’re also essentially colluding with the car manufacturers and against the public health, because the public health issue is very clear. The UK Supreme Court said it’s a health emergency, a public health emergency. The judge in the recent enforcement hearing, a couple of weeks ago in London, took the statistic of the number of deaths per year and said to the government, “Look. I know this is only statistical. It’s not individual people, but statistically 64 people, by my count, are dying every day of air pollution. How do you not see this is an emergency?” In my view, if this were deaths from cholera in the UK or somewhere else in Europe, no one would be blinking an eye. People would just take care of it. You know, they really are very unhappy about doing anything about cars.
Now, to some degree I understand that. You know, what you need to do to clean it up is to get people out of diesel vehicles, and you need to restrict diesel vehicles from going into inner cities. That’s going to be inconvenient, and there will be a period of transition. Back when I worked in Los Angeles I was at a conference with Tom Hayden, the California politician, and we were talking about air pollution in Los Angeles. He said that his political mentor had said, “Tom, you’ll be a successful politician if you never mess with people’s guns or their cars.” Now, there is some truth in that.
Part of it is that they’re too friendly to the car industry, the conservative government. Part of it is they just don’t want to bother to get people to change their behavior. It goes without saying, you can restrict cars from going into inner cities. You can also have scrappage schemes and help people to buy cleaner cars and get out of diesel vehicles. That’s been proven for decades and decades in California, which has been doing a great job of cleaning up the air. The air in LA is much better than the air in London, because in California they take this seriously.
They’ve had a very serious program [inaudible 00:11:41] since 1970. They marched through one problem after the other, and solve it, and reduce, and reduce, and reduce. Instead Britain is basically throwing up its hands and saying, “Oh, well. Let’s do things in a voluntary way. Let’s not restrict people from driving into the inner cities by charging them, because that would be inconvenient.” The scrappage scheme, well, they stuck it in an appendix saying that it would be a nice thing to think about one day. [inaudible 00:12:07] The point is compliance. The deadline was 2010. The time for thinking about things was really 2005 when the law came into effect, not …
KIM BROWN: Well, I’m sorry, James. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I did want to get to a point here, because Client Earth has its own proposal for tackling the abysmal air pollution in the UK, so what do you think needs to be done? I mean, you started to outline some of it, that their ought to be some sort of, you said scrappage. You have to translate that for me. I don’t speak British. Talk to me what that means.
JAMES THORNTON: Sure. Well, the main point here is that it’s not rocket science to clean up the air. We know where the dirty air is coming from. It’s mostly in London, just to take that as an example, it’s mostly coming from vehicles, so you need to clean up the vehicles. You can do that in several different ways. One is by putting in clean air zones in cities, London and elsewhere, where you charge people money to drive their vehicles in. That reduces people wanting to drive in. They find other ways to do it. And you can tax diesel, which is filthy, much more than gasoline, which is not perfect, but much cleaner. A switch to gasoline would help the air considerably.
The scrappage idea is it’s a buy back scheme, so that the government helps you, either by buying your dirty, old diesel entirely or by giving you a certain amount of money to help you buy a new, clean car. That’s what they’ve been doing in California for a long time, and it really works.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Well, listen. We appreciate you joining us. We’ve been speaking with James Thornton. James is the founder and chief executive of the first and biggest public interest environmental law group in Europe called Client Earth. James, we’d love to check in with you regularly about some of the cases and issue that Client Earth is working on, so we appreciate you making the time today to tell us about this fight that you have on your hands with the British government in terms of trying to improve air quality standards there.
JAMES THORNTON: Thank you very much. Very happy to talk to you any day.
KIM BROWN: Fantastic, and thank you for watching and supporting the Real News Network.