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ClientEarth Communications

26th September 2022

Air pollution

“I’m doing this for my children” – the Germans headed to court for cleaner air

When scientists announce the air you’re breathing is far more dangerous than previously understood, and your government does nothing, what do you do?

For these German residents, the answer is to take the country’s leadership to the highest national court.

Parents and children, some of whom suffer with asthma and respiratory conditions, are vying to formally establish a right to clean air in the lawbooks, with a new case launched in Germany.

What does the science say about air pollution?

Last year, the leading experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped a new package of recommendations for the maximum levels of air pollution people should be exposed to.

These slashed what had formerly been deemed acceptable – by half for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and by 75% for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Cities across the EU had previously had a poor track record on complying with the law, but consistent pressure, wide-ranging litigation, and modernisation of public transport and mobility have led many towards legal compliance.

However, while many cities now record levels of pollution that are legally acceptable, the WHO limits tell a different story. Germany, for example, may be complying with the law, but based on what scientists now know, the air in its cities is still putting people’s health in jeopardy.

Living with illegally dirty air – Germany’s most polluted cities

The claimants are based in major cities across Germany – Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Düsseldorf and Munich. Monitoring stations throughout these cities all track pollution that’s technically legal, but often more than double the ceiling the WHO laid down in 2021.

“Air pollution is something that affects every citizen every day” – Volker, Munich

With the wealth of evidence we have about what air pollution does to the human body – contributing to everything from strokes, cancer, bronchitis, adult onset asthma, and even starting to be associated with dementia and concentration issues – tackling levels now revealed to be deeply unsafe should be a political imperative.

Claimant Saskia, from Berlin, says: “As a midwife, I can see that lots of babies are getting sick, with problems with their upper airways or lungs. More and more are breathing heavily, developing breathing sounds, and many of them have to be prescribed strong medicine even in their very early days.

“I have three children. My 3-year-old daughter goes to nursery and she coughs all the time – I have to cross the street four times a day and it stresses me a lot.”

A right to clean air?

“We have a right to clean air, just as we have a right to clean drinking water” – Georg, Berlin

This case, brought by seven individuals and supported by organisations ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, uses human rights arguments for the first time.

Germany has a ‘basic law’ that lays out the rights people in the country should expect to be able to enjoy. The government is also signed up to rights agreements including the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which obliges it to secure – among other things – people’s ‘physical integrity’. That means that people have a right to a healthy environment, and we believe that includes clean, healthy air.

“We have somehow ended up living in a world where transport and industry seem to have more rights than people themselves” – Irmina Kotiuk, ClientEarth lawyer

Toxic air – just a German problem?

Air quality all across the EU is governed by a central law – the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD). This lays out the maximum air pollution thresholds for an array of pollutants known to cause harm to human health.

For years, countries across the EU were flagrantly breaching pollution limits in the AAQD, provoking a slew of litigation by organisations like ClientEarth and DUH.

Now, countries are compliant or inching towards it – but the new revelations from the WHO mean that this Autumn’s overhaul of the AAQD needs to contain serious changes.

Countries like Germany, who broadly comply with the current AAQD, need to support a fresh, stricter AAQD that follows the science and can really protect people’s health.

ClientEarth fundamental rights lawyer Irmina Kotiuk, who has been working on preparing the case, said: “There has always been an epic delay when it comes to EU countries complying with air pollution law – they need to take action now to prevent any more lives being blighted unnecessarily, and any more children carrying the legacy of dirty air for life.”


Environmental organisations ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe are proud to be supporting these claimants in bringing this case.