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Munich air pollution case: further failure may mean prison sentence for minister

Bavaria’s environment minister Ulrike Scharf has been fined for a third time over long-term failure to tackle illegal air pollution in Munich. The court also said further delay could mean a prison sentence.

The rebuke came in a court hearing today. Minister Scharf now has a four month deadline in which to take concrete action.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth and German environment organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) brought legal action in 2015 over illegal nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in Munich. Bavaria’s Higher Administrative Court ruled in our favour last February. It said the state of Bavaria must introduce a new air quality plan with drastic restrictions on diesel vehicles.

But the environment minister has refused to comply with court orders. She has already been fined twice for this thanks to sustained legal pressure from DUH.

Upping the stakes – what comes after fines?

Continued disregard of this legal obligation led to calls for a heightened legal penalty: imprisonment. The judge today confirmed that a jail sentence is a possible next step, a first in this type of case. For now, it has imposed a third fine.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Today’s decision has made things significantly more embarrassing for the environment minister. The long debate over who’s responsible for ensuring clean air for the people of Germany is wasting valuable time, while people’s health continues to be compromised. Minister Scharf needs to take concrete measures immediately to address Munich’s longstanding illegal pollution problem.”

DUH CEO Jürgen Resch said: “We have fought for several years for clean air in Germany’s cities, and with Bavaria we’ve found a regional authority which is not only flagrantly breaking the law, but also ignoring all judgments from Bavarian, German and European courts since 2012. That is an affront to the basis of democracy.”

Remo Klinger, the lawyer representing DUH in the proceedings, said: “The environment ministry has received a final warning from the court. If it doesn’t fall in line, and make it clear it is responding to today’s judgment, harsher measures will be unavoidable.”

Munich’s mayor previously declared diesel bans were the fastest way to address the issue – but no further action was taken.

Two weeks ago, and far after the deadline, the Bavarian authorities laid down an air quality plan for Munich. This was basically a repeat of the former inadequate plan, and it notably ignored the court’s express order that the city must prepare for diesel bans.

Action at EU level – Vella on the case

Nine member states are set to meet EU Environment Commissioner Vella tomorrow for a ‘last-chance’ meeting over continuing air quality infringements. Germany is among them. Vella has made clear that “‘make or break’ is already here”.

Taddei added: “The fine imposed today in Munich shows once again that authorities in Germany are not living up to their duties. People are having to stand up to defend their right to clean air before national courts. We expect the European Commission to do the same and use its powers to ensure compliance all across the EU. It must not shy away from referring the countries in breach of air quality rules to the Court of Justice of the European Union. People across the EU have waited long enough to breathe clean air.”

Meanwhile, a hearing in Germany’s Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig on February 22 is set to decide whether – and how – local diesel restrictions will come into force.

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