Cars on highway

New air pollution data are a European embarrassment

New air quality figures reveal European governments have failed to make enough progress in bringing down illegally high levels of air pollution in nearly all countries across Europe.

The statistics, which all European countries must submit to the European Commission every year, reveal air quality in many countries has not improved in any significant way since 2011 and indicates a total lack of ambition and urgency from EU authorities when it comes to protecting people’s health.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, said the embarrassing statistics were indicative of a failure of leadership from national governments.

He said: “Each year when these statistics are released we hope for an improvement, we hope they will show fewer people’s lives are being blighted by air pollution and every year we get the same story.”

Belgium, Germany and the UK are among the countries ClientEarth has taken to court for their failure to deal with illegal levels of air pollution across the country.

In the UK, the latest figures, from 2017, show that 37 out of 43 zones in the country still have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas that, where there are illegal levels, comes mostly from diesel vehicles.

Thornton added: “The UK government’s response – to dump the problem on local authorities who do not have the resources to deal with the issue – is not helping. We need UK-wide policies like a national network of clean air zones and a diesel scrappage scheme to help people move away from the most polluting cars and vans.”

Decisive stance on transport needed

In Germany, most of the country’s major cities are still struggling with illegally high levels of air pollution.

Notable offenders include Stuttgart, Munich and Cologne – Munich’s nitrogen dioxide levels, at 78µg/m3, are almost double the legal limit of 40µg/m3. Pollution levels have actually climbed the Rhine-Main area – going up from 55µg/m3 to 72µg/m3 between 2016 and 2017.

The figures reveal a distinct lack of political will to solve the problem, despite federal and regional court rulings demanding action.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Germany needs its federal government to take a bold, decisive stance on its transport emissions. Air pollution is a well-documented public health scandal, partly caused by industry and poorly handled by ministers.”

For Belgium, the data show that, yet again, Brussels has breached the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide, with annual pollution levels for 2017 (49 µg/m3) even higher than those recorded in 2016 (48 µg/m3) and 2015 (45 µg/m3).

Earlier this month, the European Court of Auditors’ air pollution report showed that EU and national authorities are failing to protect people’s health from air pollution.

The report found that Brussels’ air quality plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide by restricting traffic was “unreliable” and highlighted the lack of air quality monitoring stations in high traffic zones compared to other cities.

Taddei concluded: “We need to rethink how we get around our towns and cities – from zero-emission vehicles to carpooling, pedestrianisation and smarter infrastructure. It’s unacceptable that transport in the 21st century should be posing a major health risk to city residents. How many court rulings should it take for a country to get a grip on such a pressing issue?”

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