The UK is facing a £300-mn fine from the EU for not being able to cut air pollution.
Stiff targets for cutting levels of nitrogen dioxide, caused mainly by traffic fumes, should have been met by January 2010.
Officials, however, said the UK had not presented any plan to tackle the problem in 16 areas, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow.
The government now has two months to respond, and if it failed to present an acceptable plan legal action might follow with punitive fines.
The threat comes following the EU forcing the government to announce plans to cut the speed limit on parts of the M1 and M3 motorways to 60mph in a bid to cut pollution.
EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik had earlier singled out the UK for 'persistent' breaches of the EU's air quality directive.
A spokesman for the European Commission, which upholds EU directives, said in a statement yesterday, "Nitrogen dioxide is the main precursor for ground-level ozone, causing major respiratory problems and leading to premature death. City-dwellers are particularly exposed, as most nitrogen dioxide originates in traffic fumes."
According to James Thornton, chief executive of environmental lawyers ClientEarth, which had led the charge against air pollution in the UK, said, citizens had the right to breathe clean air and the government had a legal duty to protect citizens from air pollution.
He added, the UK had some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in Europe.
The UK is not alone as countries in Europe too failed to meet the air quality directive - that should have been adopted in 2008, though the EU environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, had singled out the UK for its "persistent" breaches of the air quality directive.
The UK government had been sent a letter of formal notice of the intention to take the UK to court, giving it two months to respond.
According to the commission, the UK had not presented any "credible and workable plan" for meeting air quality standards by 2015.
Potocnik's action comes after the UK supreme court's landmark ruling last year which declared that the UK was in breach of the directive.
The court said, "The way (is) open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level."
Air pollution leads to around 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK and the World Health Organisation had confirmed that air pollution caused cancer.
Poor air quality was also known to cause heart attacks, and children living in proximity to busy roads in the UK had been shown to grow up with underdeveloped lungs.