German judge supports environmentalists and proposes ban on diesels

A regional government in Germany has been ordered to reduce air pollution following a legal complaint by an NGO. One of T&E’s German members, DUH, took the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia to court, and won. The state has until October 2017 to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxides (NO2) in the city of Düsseldorf.

The case is one of 15 legal actions being pursued by DUH (‘Environmental Action Germany’). Germany’s transport minister Alexander Dobrindt has said councils have the right to ban diesel cars when NOx levels on the roads become hazardous, but very little has happened to date. A centrepiece of DUH’s legal action against Düsseldorf was therefore that the legislation exists, but councils are not making use of it, and this was accepted by the court.

The judgement of the Düsseldorf constitutional court was that the council has until October 2017 to put in place a clean air strategy that will bring NO2 down to acceptable levels. In theory it is up to the council to decide what actions will go into that plan, but the judge suggested that bans on diesel cars might play a central role.

‘We have never had a legal official be so specific about proposing a ban on diesel cars,’ said Dorothee Saar of DUH. ‘This is the first judgement in German legal history that recommends a ban on driving, and this will set the tone for any future judgements on urban air quality. We have described the judgement as a slap in the face for the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia. The state and the city of Düsseldorf can no longer hide behind the inaction of the federal government.’

DUH was successful in all other earlier legal actions in this context, among them against the environment ministry of the state of Hessen. Its actions also mirror those of ClientEarth, the group of activist lawyers who pursue legal actions for environmental ends.

Last month, ClientEarth launched a legal challenge to improve air quality in Brussels, alongside the ongoing challenges in the Czech Republic and the UK. It won a landmark case in 2014 against the British government, but will be taking it to court again on 18 October over continued failure to improve air quality pursuant to the 2014 ruling. All cases are based on the EU ambient air quality directive and aim to force governments to reduce air pollution to within legal limits.