The recent decision of the European Court of Justice to condemn Germany for too high levels of air pollution has put the spotlight back on the European Union’s legal action on environmental justice. But exactly what dimensions are we talking about for these legal proceedings?
Beginning in 1996, the European Union has had a series of air quality directives which dictated the appropriate limits for air pollution. These ultimately culminated in the 2008/50/EC Directive on Ambient Air Quality and Cleaner Air for Europe, the standard by which all 27 EU member states are meant to follow. Unfortunately, the majority of countries have failed to comply and have thus been brought to court for their inaction in improving air quality. Below is a list of countries that have gotten in trouble with the European Commission so far, but it is by no means complete. Some countries, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden also have had infringement cases against them, but there aren’t enough details of note to be included in this article.
In March 2021, it was found that over half (58%) of Belgium cities averaged dangerous levels of air pollution exceeding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual targets and limits since 2010. Cities most affected are Flanders and Brussels, where nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels exceed both the European and the WHO annual threshold of 40 µg/m3.
A few months earlier in January the Brussels First Instance Tribunal ruled that the Brussel regional government had failed to properly monitor and protect the health of its citizens against air pollution. They were ordered to take immediate action by installing monitoring stations in the city’s most polluted areas within 6 months or face daily charges of €300.
However, should these overall worrying air pollution trends continue, there is a chance that the country of Belgium may eventually be taken to court by the European Commission, and possibly fined in the future.
In December 2020, the European Commission announced that they would be taking Bulgaria to the EU Court of Justice after the country failed to comply with the EU’s ambient air quality legislation (Directive 2008/50/EC) for PM10 pollution from 2015 to 2019. The exceedances of the daily PM10 limit values have reached 90 days per year, which is more than 2.5 times more than the number of permissible days. The country was given a warning in 2017, but has yet to implement appropriate, timely measures three years later. There is a possibility that the country will be fined in the future should the worrisome air pollution trends continue.
In October 2020, France was brought to court by the European Commission for breaching EU PM10 limit values in Paris and Martinique for 12 and 14 years respectively. This is the second referral for France. Previously in 2019, the EU Court of Justice had ruled that the country had failed to meet NO2 concentration limits in 12 regions.
The French government was previously ordered to implement measures to reduce air pollution by the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, in July 2017. With the country’s failure, however, the government was threatened with fines of €10 million every six months in July of 2020 should conditions fail to improve.
In May 2020, Client Earth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) brought Germany’s federal government to court for long-term failure in meeting legal targets for 4 out of 5 pollutants by 2030. These were ammonia (NH3), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Previously, the same pair had lodged litigations against over 30 cities across the country due to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which led to a successful widespread ban on older diesel vehicles.
Alongside these cases are the ongoing proceedings against Germany by the European Commission, which started in 2018. This is because the country failed to comply with NO2 limit values and were unable to take appropriate, credible, effective, and timely measures as soon as possible as under EU law. In addition to this, the EU Court of Justice is also considering ruling on the possibility of imprisonment of Bavarian MPs due to their “consistent inaction” towards air pollution in Munich specifically, despite having been previously fined tens of thousands of euros in NO2 limit breaches. It is hoped that these more severe penalties will compel authorities to act for the protection and the benefit of German citizens. However, even if the EU court rules it possible for politicians to be jailed, Bavarian courts are the ones who will have the final say.
In December 2020, Greece was referred to the EU Court of Justice by the European Commission for breaching PM10 pollution concentration levels in the agglomeration of Thessaloniki. They have failed to meet limits for 14 years since 2005 (with the exception of 2013). While a verdict has yet to be issued, consequences are expected until the country makes improvements to its air quality plans.
In February 2021, the EU Court of Justice ruled Hungary guilty of “systematically and persistently” breaching legal particulate matter pollution limits in a case brought forth by the European Commission in 2018. The country experienced illegal levels of PM pollution from 2005 to 2017 in Budapest and the northeast Sajo river valley region, and from 2011 to 20177 in Pecs (with the exception of 2014). The resulting ruling ordered Hungary to comply with the legal limits in a timely manner or face financial penalties.
In November 2020, Italy was ruled to have failed to manage PM10 pollution by the EU Court of Justice. The daily limit values were found to have been exceeded in 30 air quality zones across the country from 2008 to 2017. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), more than 66 000 people prematurely die each year in Italy as a result of PM pollution, ranking the country first out of all EU member states when it comes to PM-related mortality. Based on this ruling, the EU is entitled to levy fines against Italy, which may occur in the future.
In February 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled Poland guilty of exceeding acceptable PM10 levels caused by extensive coal and rubbish burning in 35 of its 46 air quality zones. This resulted in no fines for the country as changes were being implemented. An example of this is Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court banning solid coal and wood burning in Krakow in 2019 as part of an anti-smog resolution, thus setting a standard for the rest of the country.
In April 2020, Romania was referred to the EU Court of Justice by the European Commission for failing to comply with PM10 pollution limits from 2007 until at least 2016. This also included no adherence to annual PM10 limit values in Bucharest from 2007 and 2014 (with the exception of 2013). The risk of fines for this ruling stood at €1.6 million, though it was ultimately not imposed.
In February 2021, Slovakia was taken to court by the European Commission for not respecting the daily limit values for PM10 pollution. Exceedance took place in Banskobystrický kraj from 2005 to 2019 (excluding 2016) and in Košice from 2005 to 2019 (excluding 2015 and 2016).
In July 2019, Spain was referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to respect NO2 pollution levels in the urban areas of Madrid, Barcelona, and Vallès-Baix Llobrega. This case is still pending, and may take a few years before a resolution is reached. However, given the history of precedence with other EU member states, it is very likely that Spain will only be let off with a warning along with the threat of a fine.
In March 2021, the EU Court of Justice ruled that the UK has “systematically and persistently” broken legal air pollution limits for a decade in regards to NO2 emissions and failed to tackle the issue in the shortest amount of time. This case began pre-Brexit in 2018. The UK has been ordered to pay the legal costs incurred to the European Commission; the amount is expected to be millions of pounds. It is possible that further financial penalties will be imposed should the UK continue to breach acceptable NO2 levels, however it is uncertain whether the EU Court of Justice will have the power or the inclination to do so as the UK is no longer an EU member state.
In 2018, EU member states such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden had pending infringement cases against them for breaching EU air pollution limits. The stages of an infringement procedure launched by the European Commission is as follows:
- The Commission sends a formal letter of notice requesting further detailed information to the country of concern within a specified period of typically 2 months.
- Should the Commission conclude the country’s failure in complying with EU law, it may send a formal request asking said country to comply along with an explanation of why the Commission considers it guilty. The country must then reply with the measures taken to rectify its failings within a specified period of typically 2 months.
- If the country still does not take action, the Commission may decide to refer them to the EU Court of Justice. Most cases are resolved before this step is taken.
- The European Court of Justice evaluates the country’s breach of the air quality directive and steps the country has taken to improve the situation.
- If the court finds the country guilty of breaching EU law, the national authorities are expected to comply with the court judgement.
- If the country still does not sufficiently comply with the ruling, they can be taken to the European Court of Justice again.
- They can be fined by the court. Fines are typically in the area of €10 million per day.
Based on this procedure, it is safe to assume that Austria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden were in the early stages of the infringement procedure. They were able to outline actions they took to meet EU air quality standards and implement them successfully as none of them were taken to court by the Commission.
How can EU cities and states avoid air pollution fines?
The common thread among the infringement cases is lack of government action from the EU member states. This is in spite of many having received multiple warnings and having been brought to national courts in the past. Fines, if any, are still relatively low and legal cases take a long while to be processed. Politicians are slow to adopt clean air actions and often disregard court decisions, which has led to cases like the one debating on imprisoning Bavarian MPs for these exact reasons (see section on Germany).
Voter feedback and behaviour can be the key to change in the EU. While politicians may be slacking on their responsibilities in regards to air pollution, they will spring to action if they are losing votes. Because of this, transparency on air quality issues is important. This is only possible by building air quality monitoring networks in order to communicate air pollution data to the public, so that they can be aware of the issues that impact them and hold their politicians accountable to improve their health and well-being.
Having reliable air quality networks in designated regional agglomerates will also allow politicians to take appropriate, credible, effective, and timely measures against air pollution. It can help to communicate and visualise the successes of clean air action in regions and municipalities. This is where Breeze Technologies comes in. We offer urban air quality solutions for monitoring and analyses of air quality data. Our proprietary air quality sensors are small, lower-cost, easy to install, cloud-enabled, require very little maintenance, and measure for all major air pollutants. Real-time and historic air quality data is managed in the Breeze Environmental Intelligence Cloud, thus providing clear and accurate insight into the air citizens are breathing. You can find out more about the air quality in the places that matter most on our Breeze Citizen Portal. With this knowledge, governments can make the appropriate preventative and corrective measures in improving the air of their cities and states to ensure adherence to the 2008/50/EC Directive on Ambient Air Quality and Cleaner Air for Europe. Implementing credible clean air action and communicating its successes in an effective and understandable way can be the key for countries and cities alike to avoid court proceedings and create awareness and public approval for clean air action. Contact us today for a healthier, happier nation!