Germany failed to cut dangerous air pollution, ECJ rules

Germany has been reprimanded by the European Court of Justice over its failure to tackle air pollution in its biggest cities, in a judgment that will be grist to the mill of the Green party four months before national elections.

The EU’s top court said that between 2010 and 2016 Germany had “systematically and persistently” exceeded annual limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas produced by diesel engines, in 26 of 89 assessed areas, including cities such as Berlin, Cologne and Munich.

The stinging rebuke reflects a new willingness by courts to urge more action on the environment. Last month, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon dioxide emissions faster than the oil company had planned. In April, Germany’s constitutional court demanded changes to Germany’s climate change law.

Jürgen Resch, head of campaign group Environmental Action Germany (DUH), described the ECJ judgment as a “resounding slap in the face of the diesel lobbyists on the government’s benches”, saying that “for more than 10 years Germany has systematically and wilfully broken European law”.

Improving Europe’s air quality has long been an important EU objective. The European Environment Agency cites official data showing almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent each year.

Germany’s big cities have for years been wrestling with the problem of high levels of NO2, a leading cause of respiratory disease. In 2018, Hamburg became the first German metropolis to introduce a ban on older diesel cars, part of an effort to mitigate emissions.

Environmental groups have also won a succession of rulings ordering cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Stuttgart and Frankfurt to ban diesel cars from their busiest streets.

The ECJ said that Germany had exceeded the hourly limit value in two areas — Stuttgart and the agglomeration 1 Rhine-Main, which includes Frankfurt. Under EU rules, the NO2 hourly mean value may not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre over 18 times in a year, while the NO2 annual mean value may not exceed 40mg/m3.

The environment ministry said in a statement that Germany had significantly improved air quality in its cities in recent years: NO2 limit values were exceeded in 90 cities in 2016, but that fell to 25 in 2019 and only six in 2020 — though that was largely as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

It added that new emissions standards for diesel cars had ensured “more clean vehicles on the roads, and not just on paper” and noted that the government had provided municipalities with €1.5bn in funds to help them switch to electric buses.

Still, the court, which was acting on an air pollution suit filed by the European Commission in 2018, said that Thursday’s judgment meant that the commission’s action was allowed “in its entirety”.

It said Germany had failed to adopt appropriate measures from 11 June 2010 and, as such, had “failed to fulfil its obligations”. It also rejected Berlin’s argument that Brussels’ “own omissions” were to blame in that the commission had failed to propose effective legislation to limit NO2 emissions by diesel vehicles.

EU rules on type approval of cars “cannot exempt member states from their obligation to comply with the limit values established by the [air quality] directive”, the ECJ said.

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