Ten years ago, few people recognised air pollution as a public health emergency in Europe.
Of course, cities such as London had experienced issues with smog in the past. But the dangers of modern-day, invisible air pollution were rarely highlighted in mainstream media. Although it was still damaging people’s health it was low on the public agenda.
The health impacts of air pollution were something James Thornton was keenly aware of when he moved to London and set up ClientEarth. He discovered that air quality levels were far exceeding legal limits. He decided something needed to be done – and knew ClientEarth’s lawyers were the right team to do it.
Clean air is essential for a healthy life.
Air pollution is linked to more than 400,000 early deaths each year in Europe.
Often, people are unaware of the potential health impacts of poor air quality.
How does air pollution affect your health?
Air pollution affects the health and quality of life of people living in cities across Europe on a daily basis. It aggravates breathing conditions and increases the risk of asthma attacks leading to more hospital admissions. Prolonged exposure can cause serious medical conditions, such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes.
While we are all affected, those who are the most vulnerable in our society are more at risk, especially children and older people. Exposure to air pollution can cause children to develop breathing conditions and stunted lungs.
There is also a growing body of research linking air pollution to other illnesses, including diabetes, developmental problems for children and suggested links to dementia.
We are leading the legal fight for clean air
We have proven in the courts that the UK government is failing in its legal duty to protect us from toxic air pollution, forcing it to produce two new air quality plans. This would not have happened without our legal case. But the government is not acting fast enough. That’s why we’re still fighting for a plan fit to tackle this public health crisis – and still breathing illegally dirty air.
Now we’re bringing the fight for clean air to Europe
We won groundbreaking court cases on air pollution in the UK. Now we’re bringing similar challenges across Europe. Our legal work across the continent is ongoing. Here is a snapshot of how we are working to improve air quality in diverse ways across the EU:
- In Germany, ClientEarth is collaborating with Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH). Since 2015, we have brought 16 legal cases on air pollution over illegal levels of harmful gas nitrogen dioxide, against regional authorities. This has resulted in a groundbreaking ruling of Germany’s top court that paved the way to orders to restrict diesel vehicles in more than 10 German cities, including Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
- In Belgium, ClientEarth worked with five Brussels residents to challenge the region’s government for failing to deal with illegal levels of air pollution. ClientEarth discovered that the monitoring stations at two main roads in Brussels had been switched off between 2008 and 2014. The case has now been referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union. This ruling could set a precedent that will help citizens all across the EU to fight for better information about the air they breathe.
- In Italy we have have been carrying out much work in Lombardy, forcing the region to adopt a new air quality plan. Meanwhile, the mayor in Milan announced the introduction of an ambitious LEZ starting from this February, that will ban completely diesel from the entire city.
- In February 2018, ClientEarth and Greenpeace Italy sent a letter to the Lazio regional authorities giving them 60 days to start working on a new air quality plan or face legal action. The Lazio region of Italy has particularly high levels of air pollution. A week later, the mayor of Rome announced her intention to ban diesel vehicles from the city centre as of 2024. In May, the Lazio regional government started a procedure to adopt a new air quality plan, without the need for ClientEarth and Greenpeace to file a court action.
- In France, the government was ordered by the Conseil d’Etat to produce an air quality plan within nine months to improve air quality in 16 areas, which were exceeding legal limits. This ruling was the result of legal action taken by Les Amis de la Terre, with our support.
- The Czech Republic, where ClientEarth worked with citizens taking legal action against the Czech Ministry of Environment, has also seen some significant victories for clean air. In 2018, the courts ruled that air quality plans for the cities of Brno and Prague were inadequate.
- Alongside local people we took legal action against Slovakia in June 2017. The current plan for Bratislava does not meet the EU Air Quality Directive. In November 2018, a Slovak court ruled that the city’s Air Quality Plan breaches both Slovak and European laws.
- We supported a legal challenge against the authorities of Budapest over illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in the city.
- In October 2015, ClientEarth supported a tourist who sued Zakopane, a Polish spa town, for charging visitors an environmental fee despite having illegal levels of air pollution. Polish courts ruled that the tourists had been charged illegally in June 2017 and upheld the ruling in March 2018 on appeal.
Governments across Europe need to act
How can you get involved?
If you are a parent based in the UK, please join our Clean Air Parents’ Network. This is a group working to promote understanding of the key issues around air pollution, and to provide an insight into how to engage with and influence decision making at a national and local level. The network organises regular events in cities across the UK.
Sign up to our newsletter to stay updated about ClientEarth’s work on air pollution.
You can also support our ongoing environmental work across Europe by making a regular donation.
The latest air pollution news is always available on our website.