The recent announcement that the Government will not be seeking a time extension for meeting European nitrogen dioxide limit values has been hailed as a victory for campaigners. The health based limits for the pollutant gas should have been met last year (2010), however they are still widely exceeded across the UK.
Earlier this year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published draft plans for seeking a 5 year extension (to 2015) from the European Commission. However, in order to secure the extension the plans had to show that the UK would be fully compliant by the extended deadline. Responses to the DEFRA consultation pointed out the glaring admission in the plans that it would be 2025 before all of the UK would comply, and that the extension application would therefore fall at this most elementary hurdle.
The same campaigners were ready to lobby the European Commission to ensure that they enforced their own rules with regard to the UK's application. Faced with this prospect the UK Government has made an about turn by announcing that they won't be asking for an extension. With no time extension the prospect of legal action by the European Commission for non-compliance has drawn significantly closer, a process that could end in fines of hundreds of millions of Euros.
However, rather than simply marking a climbdown this announcement may simply mark a change of direction in the Government's attempts to wriggle out of air quality responsibilities. The European Commission has started a review of all of their air quality legislation, and UK Government Ministers have already announced that they intend to push for a weakening of the troublesome nitrogen dioxide standards.
Rather than pour time and effort into a time extension application that is probably doomed to failure Ministers and officials may simply have made the decision to focus their firepower on weakening the underlying European legislation. Campaigners may therefore have won this battle, but the war over clean air looks likely to continue for some time to come.