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Press release: 24 October 2019
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the EU’s top court has found that France has systematically and persistently failed to fulfil its obligation under EU law to address illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as soon as possible.
The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has firmly rejected excuses put forward by the French government that attempted to explain its delayed action to tackle harmful levels of NO2 across the country.
Reacting to the ruling, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “For the first time ever, the CJEU has found a Member State in breach of exceeding the legal limits for NO2, a pollutant mainly emitted by diesel vehicles in cities.
“Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, which have all been referred to the CJEU for their prolonged failure to address air pollution, should all take heed of the ruling today, as we can now expect similar outcomes in those countries.”
The French government tried to argue that tackling illegal levels of NO2 had required complex structural changes that were proving both costly and time-consuming and had invoked socio-economic difficulties.
However, the CJEU refused to accept these arguments, saying that “technical or structural difficulties” cannot be used by a country as a reason for not fulfilling its legal obligation to protect human health.
Taddei added: “These excuses have been used repeatedly by authorities across the EU who continuously refuse to take responsibility for their failures to clean up the air. Today’s ruling makes it clear that these reasons will no longer stand up before the court.”
The court also highlighted that legal limits had been introduced over nine years ago but that French authorities are not planning to reduce air pollution to within those limits in certain areas before 2030.
Taddei added: “Governments across Europe need to stop kicking the can down the road and start protecting people’s health by taking action now.”
Today’s ruling follows infringement proceedings brought by the European Commission against France’s illegal levels of air pollution. The ruling today is a declaration of breach. If France continues to exceed the legal limits, the European Commission may start a second round of infringement proceedings, which has happened in Bulgaria. Ultimately, this could lead to fines against countries found in breach of EU law.
In its arguments before the CJEU, the Commission made reference to the legal action taken in 2017 by Friends of the Earth France and which ClientEarth supported. The Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest court) ordered the French government to produce plans within nine months to clean up the country’s illegal air pollution. The French judge in that case ruled that the measures taken by the French government were insufficient to bring air pollution down and ordered the adoption of more effective ones. The European Commission referred to the Conseil d’Etat’s ruling as an indication of the inadequacy of the French government’s air quality plans.
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.