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Anja Smetanin
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European Court of Justice strengthens the role of the judici-ary in respect of air quality control - If German cities do not take action, lawsuits might be the consequence

Berlin, November 19, 2014. Today the European Court of Justice has delivered its judgment in the case ClientEarth versus the United Kingdom. According to this judgment national courts can order governments to take concrete action to keep the air clean in future so that the given legal limits can be observed as soon as possible. This judgment is binding upon all the EU member states.

The British environmental organisation ClientEarth filed an action against the UK government as the valid EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is very harmful to health, have been exceeded several times for 16 zones and metropolitan areas since 2010 without the government filing an extension of time and preparing a plan for keeping the air clean. According to the present plans the UK government only intended to keep the limit values permanently from 2020, in London even only from 2025.

The Luxembourg judgment now clearly says that the directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe and thus the preparation of clean air plans to keep the limit values promptly are obligatory in all EU member states. The judgment is binding upon the national courts in the European Union, and thus also upon Germany, where many cities, e.g. Berlin, Stuttgart and Hamburg, do not remain within the statutory annual average value of 40 µg/m3 for NO2 either.

The ecological Verkehrsclub Deutschland e.V. (VCD) welcomes the opinion of the European Court of Justice. Heiko Balsmeyer, VCD’s air pollution expert: “The legal decision made today provides more clarity for national governments and the cities in Europe. In future, courts can order measures for cleaner air directly. Governments and administrations are obliged to take every effort to protect people from air pollutants.”

As regards Germany especially the Federal Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks is requested to finally give up her passive attitude towards air pollution and to initiate a national action programme for better air quality immediately. This programme should include all measures supporting the municipalities by the compliance with the limit values – especially for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. “If the authorities do not act now, they endanger the health of the people in Germany and risk actions from the citizens and from the European Commission,” says Heiko Balsmeyer.

At the municipal level environment-friendly modes of transport have to be prioritised now as it has been proved that they have a very positive effect. From the point of view of the VCD the cities and the municipalities have to promote non-motorised transport, especially bicycle traffic, more intensively. Further important potentials not utilised so far are the further development of low emission zones, the retrofit of buses with SCR systems to reduce the emission of nitrogen oxides and the obligation to require filters in public calls for tenders.

Politics and the administrations in Germany are requested to let the warning shot from the European Court of Justice be followed by effective measures for protection of the health of people against the consequences of air pollutants.

Background information:
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a collective name for various gaseous connections made of the atoms nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O). Nitrogen oxides mainly emerge by the combustion of diesel and petrol in road traffic. Modern petrol engines hardly produce nitrogen oxides thanks to catalysts, but new diesel vehicles still need to catch up in that respect.

Nitrogen oxides are a mass pollutant of the air: More than one million tons are emitted each year in Germany. Nitrogen oxides that reach the air through road traffic can make people ill. Just as other air pollutants they have a harmful effect on the respiratory tract. If there is a high concentration of nitrogen oxides, the nitrogen oxides attack the mucous membranes and cause respiratory diseases.

Nitrogen oxides are also a precursor for the formation of ozone and particulate matter. Hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxides form the ozone in the summer. Moreover, they contribute to the acidification of the soil, seas and rivers.


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