Air pollution affects human rights

Human rights lawyer Jocelyn Cockburn explains how pollution is threatening the human 'right to life'

Jocelyn Cockburn

As a human rights lawyer, I am seeking to speak to individuals affected by air pollution as part of a potential legal challenge.

Each year, nearly 60,000 people die in the UK as a result of air pollution. This is a public health emergency that prematurely kills far more than alcohol, obesity and road traffic accidents combined, and is second only to smoking as a cause of death in the UK. Children, the elderly, and people with underlying respiratory difficulties are particularly vulnerable.

The UK has been in breach of EU standards on nitrogen dioxide levels since 2010, and in April 2015, a landmark Supreme Court ruling ordered the government to come up with an Air Quality plan to tackle it. The recent Defra consultation made dismal reading and signifies that there is so far no real attempt to create a robust national plan, with responsibility shifted to overstretched local authorities with no additional funding or powers.

As the government looks set to continue to breach EU and domestic environmental standards, it could face challenges under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights - 'the right to life'. This article requires the government to take reasonable steps to protect lives from known risks. In areas of poor air quality, there are good grounds for believing that the government is in breach of article 2 in respect of those who have a particular vulnerability to pollution.

I am now looking to gather information from victims of air pollution - for instance, families where a loved one has died from a pollution-related illness or individuals who believe their health has been adversely affected, particularly those who live or work in an areas with high pollution and have underlying respiratory problems.

Jocelyn Cockburn is a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors and can be reached at:

Green action


Several London Green Parties are also carrying out citizen science air pollution monitoring projects to help campaign locally. Dee Searle, co-chair of Camden Green Party, explained: "Several authoritative studies have shown how high levels of NO2 are harming Londoners' health. The local monitoring projects highlight hotspots in our communities and give us tools to press local councils and Transport for London to implement specific air pollution reduction measures such as low-emission buses, speed restrictions and traffic-free roads."