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EU Commission must exert pressure on countries failing to tackle harmful air pollution

Environment ministers from nine EU countries, including the UK and Germany, were called to Brussels today to explain prolonged failure to address illegal pollution.

In a first-of-its-kind last-chance meeting, ministers were given a final chance to present their air quality plans to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, before the start of court actions.

Speaking after the meeting, Commissioner Vella said that the measures presented by the ministers were “not substantial enough to change the big picture” and stressed that the ongoing infringement proceedings will continue “in the face of such longstanding failures to take serious action”.

This could mean Germany, the UK and Italy, among others, are referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union, having already received a last legal warning from the Commission last February.

EU Commissioner unconvinced by minsters’ air pollution plans

Reacting to the outcome of the summit, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Commissioner Vella was evidently unimpressed. The ministers failed to present convincing and effective plans to tackle the air pollution crisis in their countries. The European Commission should now follow this blatant inaction through to its legal consequences and trigger court actions without further delay.”

In the UK, London could break air pollution limits for the entire year in the coming hours. Under EU rules, a limit of 200 μg/m3 of nitrogen dioxide cannot be broken for more than 18 hours in a calendar year. Brixton Road, Lambeth could reach 19 hours today.

Ugo added: “The UK has had illegal levels of air pollution for eight years. Last week ClientEarth took the government to court in the UK for the third time over this issue, having already won twice. The Commission should wait no longer and take immediately action in court, rather than having more meetings. People in the UK have waited long enough to breathe clean air.”

For Germany, the meeting comes the day after a German court threatened the Bavarian environment minister with imprisonment over her continued inaction on Münich’s air pollution. Meanwhile, a hearing in the Supreme Court in just three weeks will decide on potential diesel restrictions in German cities.

Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks wrote to Commissioner Vella before today’s meeting in an attempt to buy Germany more time. But cities all over the country have been breaching air quality standards since they came into force in 2010 and compliance in many cases is not expected until 2030 or after.

Ugo concluded: “The time for talking is over. If the Commissioner is serious about protecting citizens, then he needs to take the necessary legal steps to ensure these countries address this life-threatening problem with the urgency it deserves. The people of Europe have waited long enough to breathe clean air.”

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Daniel von Appen