With one of the worst records for air pollution in Europe, London is now joining other industrial areas in pressing the European Commission for even more flexible air quality laws.

The air quality in London has been worse this year than in any of the previous five years. The capital is in breach of EU air quality regulations and threatened with fines of up to £300 million.

But at a recent meeting in Brussels, London joined 12 regions in seven countries which have the most concentrated industrial operations, to ask the EU executive to "recognise their efforts to control emissions when considering enforcement action″, by taking account of their “special features" - i.e., their higher concentration of sources of pollution.

The initiative, called AIR (Air-Quality Initiative of Regions), began in Italy’s Po River Valley, an area rich in agriculture and industry. London, and regional authorities in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, soon joined up.

Together, they represent 22% of the EU’s GDP and 18% of the EU population.

They deny that they are lobbying for a weakening EU air quality standards.

“We simply want to have the revised directive to be more flexible in terms of recognising the specific features of some territories of the European Union and to recognise the efforts made by regional authorities to … try to balance development and sustainability,” said Remo Tavernari of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna EU office.

“But we didn’t ask and we are not going to ask for the limits of the directive to be pushed down,” said Tavernari, the office’s senior policy officer for energy and environment.

Their manifesto asks that future laws “shall further assist regions in their efforts to improve air quality," and “take source-based measures when tackling air-quality problems", which would include “realistic test cycles, tyre and brake wear, buildings, industry and clean fuel".

It also asks for better integration between different European policies affecting air quality when the revision to the directive is drafted next year.

Besides Greater London, the regions are: Baden-Württemberg, Hessen and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany; Catalonia in Spain; Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Vento in Italy; Randstad in the Netherlands; Flanders in Belgium; and Steiermark in Austria.

The EU executive has filed infringement proceedings against 20 countries over noncompliance with the 2008 Air Quality Directive.

Studies show that levels of pollutants in Europe, including nitrogen oxide (NO2), ozone and particulate matter, are rising, despite the economic slowdown.

The UK's shame

The UK's appalling air quality is responsible for up to 30,000 deaths a year, the Environmental Audit Committee said last month.

This was confirmed, earlier this month, by the High Court, which told lawyers representing environment secretary Caroline Spelman that the Government had failed to meet European law obligations on air quality, in a case brought by campaign group ClientEarth.

But Judge Mr Justice Mitting said he could not take any enforcement action and order Mrs Spelman or Boris Johnson to reduce the pollution, as this was a matter for the European Commission.

"Such a mandatory order ... would raise serious political and economic questions which are simply not for a judge," he added.

Under EU air quality rules, the UK was meant to meet reduction targets for NO2 by 2010. It failed, and was then allowed under EU rules to apply for an extension until 2015, the latest possible deadline.

But it has now pushed this date even further back, until 2020, in 17 regions and cities in the UK, and 2025 in London, leaving inhabitants to suffer for much longer.

On the Greater London Authority's website, the latest emissions statistics are almost two years old.

But the figures are available in real time, on the London Air Quality Network website, where it is possible to see just how bad the pollution is.

Darren Johnson, a Green Party representative on the London Assembly, argues that air quality is even worse than official figures suggest, because results from most monitoring stations are not passed on to the European authorities.

Provisional figures from a monitoring site at Neasden Lane recorded in excess of the 35 days permitted under the legislation for PM10 levels, he said. The official monitoring sites are just two: at Marylebone Road and Embankment.

"Boris has been given £5m by the government to clean up the air in London. What they’ve been doing is trying to reduce the amount of pollution at the measuring stations recognised by the EU and on the Olympic route," argues Green Party candidate for mayor and London Assembly member Jenny Jones.

Darren Johnson adds that the UK and the Mayor of London are "only likely to avoid being taken to court and to get away with an appalling failure on air pollution because they are refusing to give the European Commission the full picture".

But London's Low Emission Zone pollution-reducing measures have been a success, according to a recent study, and from January, after some delay, emission standards for vehicles are to become even more strict. The LEZ covers most of Greater London.

The study, by Professor Frank Kelly of King's College London, called the Low Emission Zone "a world leading traffic intervention scheme".

"Our evaluation of the initial phase of the LEZ has demonstrated its feasibility to achieve improved air quality. We are now eager to extend this work following the implementation of the long awaited phase 3 of the LEZ in January 2012," Professor Kelly said.

New air quality index

Defra and the Devolved Administrations will be implementing a new air quality index for the UK from 1st January 2012, which won't help reduce pollution but will increase awareness of it.

The new Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) follows the damning review by the a Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) last June.

It will include changes to the index bands for pollutants, the inclusion of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), colour coding to aid interpretation and guidance on what it means for health.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik wants 2013 to be the “Year of Air” for Europe, and is pushing for stronger air quality laws across the European Union.

But with many member states failing to enforce current rules, this is a tough call.

The consultation phase on the EU Air Quality Directive revisions will continue up to the middle of 2012.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor