REVEALED: Government air pollution proposals ‘too little too late’ to avoid court

An assessment of national proposals to tackle toxic air pollution has concluded that none are sufficient to address the problem. Green groups argue that all nine government facing EU infringement proceedings should expect to be sent to court this week.

The European Commission is expected to announce on Thursday which governments will face judges at the European Court of Justice for their failure to bring air quality in line with EU law.

Back in January nine environment ministers were summoned to Brussels and asked to explain what they planned to do to improve air quality in the shortest possible time.

The Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom had all already been issued final warnings for persistent breaches of EU air quality laws.

After the meeting, the European Commission told governments to send them details of “credible, timely and effective” measures to cut pollution, or face being sent to court.

Environmental groups then used access to information laws to ask governments to share their proposals.

Margherita Tolotto, Air Policy Office at the EEB, Europe’s largest network of environmental groups, said:

“Unfortunately for people breathing polluted air all over Europe, nothing that we have read persuades us that governments have put into place the ‘credible, timely and effective’ measures that the Commission has demanded. It now seems inevitable that they will be sent to court as a result of their inaction.”

Tolotto was commenting after reading proposals from the French, German, Italian, Slovakian and Hungarian governments. The British, Spanish and Czech authorities refused to publish their letters.

The EEB has shared all of the documents online and produced an oversight assessment of the measures proposed:

While the assessment recommends that all nine countries be sent to court, there are also areas where government proposals are welcomed.

The Italian government’s commitment to phasing out coal power and to improving public transport are welcomed, as is a €21 million Slovakian plan to modernise busses in Bratislava.

The Hungarian government is commended for encouraging the EU to take steps to prevent a flood of dirty diesel cars from entering Eastern European countries from Western markets.

Tolotto added:

While it’s clear that governments have at least started to think about air pollution as an important and urgent issue, the overall picture is one of proposals that lack the clarity, commitments and cash required to make a real difference, fast. Everyone in Europe has the same right to clean air, and when national governments fail to ensure that, it’s right that the Commission steps in to protect us from the air we breathe.

The assessment is particularly critical of Germany’s proposals saying that they “lacked substance” and of Hungary’s for missing the required “concrete proposals and commitments”.

It also calls the Spanish, British, Czech and Romanian governments’ refusal to share information “unacceptable”. The UK government was criticised in March when it refused the access to information request on public interest grounds.

The European Commission has the power to send governments to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failing to respect EU rules, including those that should guarantee the quality of the air in cities across the continent.

If the ECJ finds governments to have failed to follow the law, they can demand that action is taken. Ultimately, fines could be imposed on governments if they continue to fail to act.

Yet while limits are breached in more than 130 cities in 23 of the 28 Member States, the EU’s executive has been slow to pursue infringement cases against the worst offenders.

This week’s announcement follows previous successful cases against Poland and Bulgaria, rulings that were described by the EEB at the time as “the tip of the iceberg” of air pollution infringements.


Read more

National air pollution plans ‘too little too late’ to avoid court, EEB Q&A, 15 May 2018.

The information requests were sent together with EEB members and partner organisations in the UK (ClientEarth), Italy (Legambiente & Cittadini per l’aria), Spain (Ecologistas en Acción), Romania (Centrul de Excelență pentru Dezvoltare Durabilă, Centrul de Consultanta Ecologica Galati, Grupul Ecologic de Colaborare,  Ecoteca & the National Centre for Sustainable Production and Consumption), the Czech Republic (Frank Bold & CPZPZ), Hungary (Levegő Munkacsoportot), and Slovakia (Centre for Sustainable Alternatives).