The UK and five other nations have been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution. The European court of justice (ECJ) has the power to impose multimillion-euro fines if the countries do not address the problem swiftly.

The nations – the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania – had been by the European Commission in January. Toxic air results in more than 400,000 early deaths across Europe each year.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, mostly produced by diesel vehicles, have been illegally high since 2010 in the vast majority of urban areas in the UK.

The government’s latest plan in 2017 was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors. Ministers were forced by UK courts to improve the plan in February, after losing in the high court for the third time to environmental lawyers ClientEarth, and have until the end of 2018 to implement the stricter measures.

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“We have waited a long time and we cannot possibly wait any longer,” said Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment. “We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”