21st Mar 2018

European pioneers battle air pollution in the courts

  • Smog in Paris. The mayor is challenging in court a European decision to allow cars to pollute more than the EU limits (Photo: Damián Bakarcic)

Taking a national government to court is not the nicest method to get things done, but some environmental organisations and municipal governments are using this last resort method to force a change in air-quality policies.

“It is not a desirable fight, but at some point you have to say: enough is enough,” said Anne Knol, activist for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

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Her group, known locally as Milieudefensie (Environmental defence), sent the Dutch government a summons earlier this month, saying it should come up with a plan to reduce air pollution. If not, it will take the government to trial next month.

“It is a pity that we need the judge, and that we cannot rely on the morality that it is important enough to put health first,” Knol told EUobserver at the non-governmental organisation's (NGO) office in Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Paris is preparing two cases before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against a recent decision by EU member states and the European Parliament to allow car manufacturers to exceed emissions limits.

According to EU figures, more than 400,000 people die prematurely every year because of air pollution.

The Netherlands, as many other EU member states, is failing to stay under the EU limits. Currently, the EU commission has opened infringement procedures for excessive levels of fine particles against more than half of the member states, and against six countries regarding nitrogen dioxide.

Bulgaria and Poland are facing a case in the ECJ.

But Knol thinks the EU commission is not doing enough.

“The European Commission has some people who take this very seriously, but it lacks the capacity to prosecute all countries that breach the limits,” she said.

The Dutch case is inspired by a similar legal action against the UK government by the NGO ClientEarth. That UK case led to landmark ruling by the ECJ in November 2014, when the Luxembourg-based court said that a national court has the power to order a government to do more to improve air quality.

The ECJ ruling paved the way for grassroots lawsuits against national governments all over Europe, the first results of which we are now seeing in several places in Europe.

ClientEarth is working together with a German NGO to take action against the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Hessen, ClientEarth's spokesman Jon Bennett said.

He also added that organisations in two other EU states are “at an advanced stage” of starting a court case, but that he could not reveal which two.

Parisian opposition

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is preparing to challenge a decision involving a new test method for diesel cars.

The new test method came after Volkswagen admitted it had used illegal cheating software to fool the emissions tests, which take place in a laboratory setting. But there is a huge gap between lab results and actual emissions.

In October 2015, national governments decided that when the car approval process will move from laboratory tests to the so-called real driving tests in 2017, car manufacturers will be allowed to breach EU limits by a factor of 2.1, until 2020.

“The commission cannot demand that states have to be sanctioned in front of the Court of Justice of the European Union for non-compliance of environmental objectives, while at the same time permitting car manufacturers to produce vehicles that pollute more,” Hidalgo said in a press release earlier this month.

The French centre-left politician has been in the forefront of building a coalition of mayors opposed to the European emissions decision.

Mayors of 20 cities – including Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Madrid, and Warsaw – signed a letter in March, asking that “all legal and political means” are used to ensure air-quality targets are reached.

Hidalgo has invited the same group of mayors to sign up to the EU court case.

Then what?

However, even if a court rules in favour, the question is still whether the governments follow the ruling.

In the UK, ClientEarth started a second case against the state, because the plan the government presented after being forced to do it by the UK Supreme Court, was not sufficient in their eyes.

A landmark court ruling in the Netherlands in 2015, demanding that the government does more to fight climate change, has also not produced a policy shift that satisfied the organisation that won the case.

“These types of court cases are pursued when there is a political unwillingness. After you win the court case, that political unwillingness still exists,” said Anne Knol.

However, she noted that the climate case “inspired the whole environmental movement”.

“It's hopeful that they won,” she said, adding that a court case also keeps a topic on the agenda.

She expects a ruling some time in March 2017, around the same time parliament elections are scheduled in the Netherlands.

Knol also noted that citizens have been very involved, helping to gather data on pollution levels, and donating to fund the court case.

“Within 24 hours, we had collected almost €15,000,” she said.

As of Wednesday (25 May), two weeks after Friends of the Earth Netherlands' crowdfunding campaign began, the NGO had collected 83 percent of the target of €25,000.

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