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13th Dec 2019

Netherlands latest EU country to be told to improve air quality

  • Protesters in Brussels demanding cleaner air (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The Dutch state has to do more to make sure it complies with EU emissions limits, a court in the Hague ruled on Thursday (7 September).

The ruling follows several other cases where European judges stepped in to demand cleaner air for citizens. In the Netherlands, it will also complicate coalition talks.

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The case was filed by environmentalist group Milieudefensie (Environmental defence), the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth.

According to EU law, the country was supposed to comply with emissions limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) by 1 January 2010, and for particulate matter (PM) by 1 January 2005.

The European Commission gave the Netherlands an extended period to comply, namely until 1 January 2015 for NO2, and 11 June 2011 for PM.

However, the country has consistently exceeded those limits for both pollutants in a number of locations.

The EU directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe requires member states that have zones where the emissions limits are exceeded to come up with air quality plans "so that the exceedance period can be kept as short as possible".

The court ruled that the air quality plan the Dutch government has in place is too general, and ordered the government to start work on a new plan within two weeks.

Milieudefensie had asked the court to demand that this plan is ready before the end of 2018, but the judge turned down that request because the phrase "as short as possible" was not defined further.

'Breakthrough'

Nevertheless, the environmental NGO was very happy with the result.

"This is a complete breakthrough for clean air," said campaigner Anne Knol in a written statement. "We are delighted that the judge has obliged the state to better protect its citizens' health."

EUobserver spoke to Knol in Amsterdam last year, when her organisation had just announced the plan to sue the government over bad air quality.

"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," she said at the time. "It is not a desirable fight but, at some point, you have to say: enough is enough."

Milieudefensie was inspired to sue the state after a similar court case took place in the UK.

In a 2014 landmark ruling, the Court of Justice of the EU said the UK's Supreme Court should take "any necessary measure" to make sure the government complies with EU emissions limits.

More recently, a court in Stuttgart, Germany, told the municipality to rewrite its air quality plan last July, and said a ban on diesel cars should be in place as of next year.

Coalition talks

The result of the Dutch court case does not only have legal consequences, but also political.

The country has been ruled by a caretaker government since elections last March.

The pragmatic government coalition of centre-right Liberals and centre-left Labour lost its majority, and the Liberals are in talks with three other parties to replace Labour as coalition partner.

The other three are the centre-right Christian-Democrats, the centrist D66, and the christian-orthodox Christian Union.

Caretaker minister for environment Sharon Dijksma (Labour) already said on Thursday that she planned to come up with plans to improve air quality.

But the four negotiating parties will also have to find a way to cement a policy response within their coalition agreement.

This will be a tough debate.

D66 and Christian Union have a strong environmental side, while the Liberals profile themselves as the party defending car drivers.

It was under Liberal prime minister Mark Rutte that the maximum speed on highways was increased from 120 to 130 kilometres per hour, which pleased drivers, but also increased NO2 emissions by some 12 percent.

Widespread problem

Meanwhile, the Netherlands is by no means the only EU country that struggles to stay under emissions limits.

Sixteen other member states are at the receiving end of a legal proceedings, called an infringement procedure, compelling them to reduce levels of PM10 particles, of which two - Bulgaria and Poland - are facing the EU's Court of Justice.

The commission has also launched infringement procedures against twelve member states with excessive NO2 levels.

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