Press release: 8 October 2020

Court cases double German air pollution cuts – new analysis

Air pollution falls twice as steeply in cities where air quality litigation has been taken, compared with those subject to no legal interventions, new analysis has shown.

Between 2018 and 2019 alone, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels reduced by an average of 4.2µg/m³ in cities where air quality litigation has been undertaken. Meanwhile, in cities where no action was taken, that average reduction stands at just 2.1µg/m³.

The findings come from consumer affairs and environmental experts at Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), which has taken litigation in 40 German cities over consistently dangerous levels of air pollution. Seventeen of these suits were brought in liaison with environmental law charity ClientEarth.

A total of 31 of those cases have now successfully concluded.

All cases have been taken on the basis of levels of NO2 consistently and dramatically higher than EU law allows since bloc-wide air quality law came in in 2010.

DUH head of Transport and Air Quality Dorothee Saar said: “People are finally breathing cleaner air – legal action works. We see potential for NO2 to meet legal limits in every German town by 2021.

“Politicians and the diesel industry have pushed against us at every stage, just for working towards a reality where people actually get to breathe clean air. In the end, the court rulings and these latest findings say it all: our litigation was justified and successful. We must hold our leaders to account when our health is on the line.”

DUH and ClientEarth’s legal battles in Germany took on new proportions in February 2018 when the country’s highest court confirmed that diesel restrictions were not only possible but legally necessary when they were the most efficient way to bring illegal pollution down.

A slew of diesel restrictions in major German cities followed – but later court results have included wins and settlements where less polluted cities propose other innovative traffic control measures, major improvements to bus, train and cycle infrastructure, discounts on season tickets and fleet-wide bus retrofits.

However, activities in the wake of the lockdown are in danger of reversing positive trends.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “The Covid-19 pandemic makes clear how important it is to clean up the air in accordance with the law, to avoid increasing the burden on those with poor health. But while the improvement in German air quality is encouraging, there is a risk Covid-19 could buck this trend. Amid the pandemic, people are abandoning public transport in favour of private vehicles. This shift worsens pollution and creates more dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. This is why we need concrete measures in place: we need to get the most polluting vehicles out of the centres of our towns and cities.”


About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.