People power and courts fight first-ever attempt to scrap low-emissions zone

The European Commission, a Spanish court and people power appear to have won a bizarre battle to keep Europe’s most successful low-emissions zone operating. According to provisional readings, the ‘Madrid Central’ zone in the Spanish capital has achieved more NO2 reductions than any city in Europe since being introduced last year, but the scheme faces being scrapped by a coalition of right-wing parties that formed a majority after May’s Madrid city elections.

Europe’s cities have been obliged to meet air quality standards set in 2010, but Madrid has regularly violated these standards. Last year, the Commission threatened to refer Spain to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if it did not take immediate action to improve air quality. The result was the Madrid Central low-emissions zone (LEZ) introduced by the mayor Manuela Carmena. Drivers of all cars – except electric and hybrid – are fined €90 (€45 for prompt payment) for entering the city centre. 

In its first months, the LEZ has reduced nitrogen dioxide levels by 32% compared with 2018, which is 13% below Madrid’s best years. Yet at May’s elections, Carmena fell short of a majority, and lost her position as mayor to José Luis Martínez-Almeida of the Popular Party, who is supported by the Ciudadanos party and the far-right Vox. Within weeks, the new mayor announced he would suspend the Madrid Central LEZ from 1 July.

The move was met by mass street protests from local residents, and they have now won a victory in a local court. A week after the moratorium on the LEZ came into effect, a judge in a Madrid court suspended the moratorium, saying pollution could not be allowed to rise ‘without any kind of controls’. Two weeks later, the Commission asked the ECJ to start legal proceedings against Spain because of poor air quality in its cities.

Nuria Blázquez from T&E’s Spanish member Ecologistas en Acción said: ‘It’s clear that the moratorium on Madrid Central had a lot to do with the decision to begin legal action against Spain for failing to achieve sufficient air quality levels. Even though the legal action could cost Spain up to €2 billion, we believe the decision is a logical consequence of the insufficient and ineffective measures taken in Madrid and Barcelona, the two areas most affected by poor air quality.

T&E’s air quality manager Jens Müller said: ‘If the Madrid LEZ is allowed to be scrapped, this would not only be a first in European history – no European capital has ever scrapped a clean air zone after its successful introduction – but would also kill Europe’s most successful LEZ. The NO2 reductions achieved by the scheme in the first year have been spectacular, and measurements from other parts of the city confirm that pollution has not been shifted to other parts of Madrid – it has quite simply been reduced. That is why Madrid has rightly been praised for its clean air zone, and why scrapping it would be crazy.

Detailed assessments of the Madrid Central LEZ have yet to be published, but even allowing for some variations, the Spanish capital is well ahead of Berlin and Lisbon, the cities with the best NO2 reduction figures up to now (both posted 12% falls).