Landscape at sunrise

Clean air across Europe – a snapshot

ClientEarth and its partners have taken authorities in several European countries to court over illegal levels of air pollution.

In Germany, ClientEarth collaborated with Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) in 2015 and brought 10 legal cases on air pollution over illegal levels of harmful gas nitrogen dioxide, against regional authorities.

Courts ordered the governments of Dusseldorf, Munich and Stuttgart, respectively to put restrictions on diesel vehicles in place. However, the cities argued that local authorities did not have the power to restrict diesel vehicles, a major source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

On 27 February this year, Germany’s highest national court ruled that cities are obliged to introduce diesel restrictions immediately to protect people’s health. This ruling prompted ClientEarth and DUH to take legal actions against 11 more German cities starting in March 2018.

In Belgium, ClientEarth worked with five Brussels residents to challenge the region’s government for failing to deal with illegal levels of air pollution. Shockingly, ClientEarth discovered that the monitoring stations at two main roads in Brussels had been switched off between 2008 and 2014.

ClientEarth took the Brussels Government to court in September 2016. Despite monitoring stations being switched back on, the Brussels Government is still avoiding using the results on a technicality.

In December 2017, the judge requested guidance from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) but stated that the Brussels Government’s air pollution plan was in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive.

ClientEarth also worked with a group in Italy called Cittadini Per l’Aria to challenge the regional authorities in Lombardy in February 2017 over illegal air pollution in the region. The pressure the legal action put on the regional government prompted it to announce in April 2017 that it would be updating their air quality plan and improve measures aimed at bringing down illegal levels of air pollution.

In February 2018, ClientEarth and Greenpeace Italy sent a letter to the Lazio regional authorities giving them 60 days to start working on a new air quality plan or face legal action. The Lazio region of Italy has particularly high levels of air pollution. A week later, the mayor of Rome announced her intention to ban diesel vehicles from the city centre as of 2024. In May, the Lazio regional government started a procedure to adopt a new air quality plan, without the need for ClientEarth and Greenpeace to file a court action.

In France, the government was ordered by the Conseil d’Etat to produce an air quality plan within nine months to improve air quality in 16 areas, which were exceeding legal limits. This ruling was the result of legal action taken by Les Amis de la Terre, with the support of ClientEarth.

The Czech Republic, where ClientEarth worked with citizens taking legal action against the Czech Ministry of Environment, has also seen some significant victories for clean air. In 2018, the courts ruled that air quality plans for the cities of Brno and Prague were inadequate.

Similar legal action was taken against Slovakia in June 2017 by local people and ClientEarth as the current plan for Bratislava does not meet the EU Air Quality Directive. The hearing of this case has yet to happen.

However, in Bulgaria, residents of Sofia were denied the chance to discuss the flaws in the current local air quality plan, which is failing to reduce air pollution sufficiently. The Bulgarian courts claimed citizens do not have the right to challenge Sofia’s measures to tackle air pollution. The Bulgarian courts refused to follow access to justice principles, binding EU rules, and well-established case law of the CJEU and national courts, which all demand standing for citizens and NGOs to enforce the right to clean air in court.

In Poland, in October 2015, ClientEarth supported a tourist to sue Zakopane, a top spa town for charging visitors an environmental fee despite having illegal levels of air pollution. Polish courts ruled that the tourists had been charged illegally in June 2017 and upheld the ruling in March 2018 on appeal.

In recent years, ClientEarth has won three landmark victories against the UK Government in court. It began in 2011 when ClientEarth took the government to court for its failure to reach legal limits of NO2 by the EU’s 2010 deadline. In April 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the government to produce new plans to tackle air pollution, concluding ClientEarth’s five-year legal battle with the government.

However, in December 2015, the government published its new plans and ClientEarth viewed them as inadequate, forcing ClientEarth to take the government back to court. In November 2016, the government was ordered to produce another set of plans that would bring down air pollution to within legal limits as soon as possible.

ClientEarth was forced to return to court for a third time this year when those plans still were not good enough. As a result of this third case, the judge ruled the government’s plans unlawful and ordered supplementary plans to improve them.

These supplementary plans will come out in stages over the course of the next six months and ClientEarth will be reading them with interest and making sure they are up to scratch.

It is essential, for the health of people across Europe, that governments are held accountable if they fail to protect people from illegal levels of air pollution.

As ClientEarth’s CEO James Thornton put it: we spend a lot of time thinking about the quality of the air because you spend a lot of time breathing it. We will continue to hold governments to account and fight for people’s health in the months and years to come.

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