29 April marked the end of ClientEarth’s long legal fight to force the UK government to clean up air pollution in London and 15 other regions. The same day, the European Commission escalated legal action against France by issuing a final written warning. Known as a ‘reasoned opinion’, it insists that France protect people by respecting EU limits for PM10 – tiny particles found in air pollution, which cause heart attacks, asthma and strokes.
Official French figures show ten towns and cities in France have illegally high air pollution, including Paris, Lyon, Nice and Marseille. Air pollution prematurely kills 400,000 Europeans every year. New figures from the World Health Organisations show it costs Europe $1.6tn (£1.5tn) a year in early deaths and disease. This is equivalent to about one-tenth of Europe’s GDP.
France has been breaking EU air pollution law for years – this development marks a significant escalation in a legal action first launched in early 2013. The Commission has instructed France to start cleaning up the country’s air pollution within two months. If it fails, the French government could find itself hauled before the European Court of Justice, which has the power to issue huge fines. The parallels between the French and UK cases are clear: both countries will now have to take urgent action to tackle pollution, particularly from diesel vehicles. We will be watching France’s reaction carefully.
The Commission also has 15 other infringement cases open against EU countries including Belgium, Germany and Spain. See our Clean Air Handbook for more detail on the Commission infringement process.