Six EU governments finally face legal action over air pollution

Six EU countries are being taken to court for failing to tackle repeated breaches of air quality limits. T&E said the legal action by the European Commission is a long-overdue and welcome step. Germany, France and the UK face penalties for years of allowing breaches of limits on toxic NO2 emissions while Italy, Romania and Hungary failed to tackle harmful and illegal levels of particulates (PM10). Spain, however, has got away with a warning.

 

Separately, additional warnings were issued to Germany, the UK, Italy and Luxembourg for failing to take action against the millions of diesel cars with illegal defeat devices that allegedly cheated emissions tests.

The six countries that will be taken to court had received warnings from the Commision over allowing illegal levels of emissions. They had the opportunity to submit a set of ‘credible, timely and effective’ measures to fix the problem, but failed to do so. Germany, the UK and Luxembourg approved the VW group diesels later found to have cheated the tests, but failed to properly investigate and levy penalties.

The Commission is also investigating whether Italy properly scrutinised the suspiciously high emissions of some Fiat models it approved in the past. A number of Dieselgate investigations exposed the Fiat models as the most polluting in Europe but, as T&E highlighted last year, the national authorities that approved the vehicles have refused to act.

T&E’s clean vehicles and air quality manager, Julia Poliscanova, said: ‘This long-overdue announcement shows governments they cannot go on allowing citizens to be poisoned by toxic air. Meeting air pollution limits is something governments have signed up to and is a legal obligation. .’

T&E’s analysis indicates there are still 40 million grossly polluting diesel cars and vans – the main cause of toxic NO2 exceedances in urban areas – on the EU’s roads. These vehicles emit several times the legal levels of NOx, which has adverse respiratory effects including asthma in the short term and is linked to lung cancer in the long term.

Julia Poliscanova concluded: ‘We need to get much tougher on the cause of the diesel pollution problem: Europe’s carmakers. The European Commission should replace member states’ piecemeal approach to retrofits with a mandatory EU-wide recall programme so that all drivers get their dirty diesels fixed. The upgrades must follow a harmonised EU procedure with emission reductions certified by independent bodies, not by the discredited car industry.’

In the case of Spain, repeated breaches of legal limits in several locations led to two infringement files being open – for PM10 in 2009 and NO2 pollution in 2015. In a final warning, the Commission called Spanish government officials for consultations in January. NGO Ecologistas en Acción criticised the lack of transparency in the process that saw no further action being taken.

Ecologistas en Acción said that action plans against pollution in Madrid and Barcelona had not been implemented and should have been more than a decade ago. EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said he will be watching the implementation of the plans.

Ecologistas en Acción’s air quality coordinator Miguel Angel Ceballos said: ‘Our hope was that the European Commission finally make clear to the Spanish State that, as Commissioner Vella said in January, inaction has consequences. Whoever does not take action leaves us unprotected against pollution. It sends a message to the authorities that they do not need to make additional efforts to improve air quality.’

Cities step up

Measures continue to be taken against air pollution at city level – in Europe and beyond. Hamburg has already begun putting up signs to enforce what will be the first ban on older diesel vehicles from streets in a major German city. A German federal court ruled in February that its cities were entitled to impose diesel bans. However, Hamburg’s restriction will affect only a couple of the city’s main streets. Brussels is the latest of a series of European cities that diesel will be banned from the city, in this case in 2030.