The mayor of Madrid’s plan to cancel the city’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) could land the Spanish government in court for failing to guarantee its citizens’ right to clean air.

Leading european environmental groups and the Spanish organisation Ecologistas en Accion have written to the EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to urge him to reconsider the decision not to send Spain to court for air quality infringements, in light of the suspension of ‘Madrid Central’ – a low emission zone designed to improve air quality in the Spanish capital.

Spain was one of just three countries in a ‘toxic bloc’ of air quality offenders that avoided being sent to Europe’s top court last year.

Margherita Tolotto, the EEB’s clean air policy officer, said:

“Last May Spain avoided court, and potentially millions of euros in fines, because the Commission was apparently persuaded measures were being put into place to improve air quality in the shortest possible time. Scrapping or weakening the Madrid Central LEZ is a backwards step and the Commission must now revisit its decision.”

In a joint letter, Ecologistas, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Transport & Environment and ClientEarth point to the fact that data obtained since the introduction of the low emission zone in November last year has consistently shown: “a stark trend of reduced pollution”. They argue that the LEZ has “undoubtedly proven effective in reducing air pollution” and “made the city centre a more liveable place.”

The decision to suspend the LEZ by publicly announcing that drivers of highly polluting vehicles would no longer be fined for entering Madrid’s centre was taken by the city’s new conservative mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida.

Martínez-Almeida’s announcement has been heavily criticised by environmental groups including EEB member Ecologistas en Accion, which called the announcement “immoral”.

Ecologistas pointed out that 8,900 premature deaths are caused in Spain every year because of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions alone. In a statement, the group also pointed out in April, the only air quality monitoring station within the LEZ had recorded its all-time lowest monthly NO2 reading. Monitoring stations across the city – including outside the LEZ – also measured improved air quality.

NO2 pollution in cities is linked to dirty diesel vehicles, which cause high concentrations of the pollutant in urban areas. A recent citizen science investigation Belgium highlighted the extent of Europe’s air quality crisis as European limit values were being broken almost anywhere traffic formed in towns and cities.

Ecologistas has promised to use the Spanish and European courts to fight the mayor’s decision and the latest letter will add pressure to the Commission to act to uphold European law.

The EEB has been pressing for tougher EU action against countries breaching European air quality limits for years.

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