7th Dec 2022

Germany sued over air pollution levels

  • The EU is currently reviewing its main air-quality law, with a proposal expected to come in October (Photo: Skaja Lee)
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German citizens are suing their government over its failure to bring down air pollution levels to limits recommended by the world's leading scientists.

The seven claimants, supported by environmental organisations ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe [German Environment Help], last week launched the case in the Federal Administrative Court — Germany's highest court.

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They argue German law breaches their fundamental rights, since it allows air-pollution levels to be four to five times higher than those the World Health Organization (WHO) deems acceptable.

"Air pollution may not often be named the official cause of death, but it claims lives — and causes long-term diseases, including cancer, heart problems, shortness of breath and strokes," said one of the claimants from Munich, who suffers from asthma.

"I am now suing for my right to breathe clean and healthy air."

The claimants all come from the country's four most-polluted cities: Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Frankfurt.

While the EU set legally-binding air quality standards to tackle air pollution in 2015, the WHO lowered its levels in 2021 — prompting campaigners to urge the EU to align its legislation with science.

The EU is currently reviewing its main air-quality law, with a proposal expected to come in October.

But its implementation will not be immediate, meaning EU member states will not be obliged to comply with more strict thresholds for several years.

Over 90 percent of the EU's urban population is exposed to high levels of fine-particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone above those recommended by the WHO, according to the European Environment Agency.

And it is estimated that reducing air pollution to WHO-recommended levels in the EU could prevent 51,213 premature deaths each year.

There are currently ongoing infringement procedures against 18 member states for failing to implement current EU air-quality rules — including referrals to the European Court of Justice against Romania, Greece, Malta, Italy, and Austria.

"What's needed here is simple — alignment of national air quality laws with the science laid out by the world's leading experts. This is the bare minimum our leaders should be doing to protect people," said Irmina Kotiuk, a lawyer from ClientEarth.

In the past, climate litigation has successfully led to a reduction in air pollution in Germany.

Between 2018 and 2019, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels were reduced in several German cities where legal cases over air pollution had been undertaken by environmental groups.

In the EU, over 400,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of breathing toxic air.

Air pollution drops in Europe, but how long will it last?

Air pollution has dramatically decreased across Europe following the coronavirus lockdown measures - although experts warn an 'emissions surge' is likely to happen as economies recover. Meanwhile, experts point out the link between air pollution and Covid-19 "underlying conditions".

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