Over the space of just two days, three of Europe’s biggest courts are set to rule in favour of cleaner air, in judgements described as ‘significant victories’ in the fight against illegal levels of air pollution.

The European Court of Justice, Luxembourg

Almost three years after being sent to the ECJ for persistently breaching EU legal limits on air pollution, Poland was today finally found guilty of failing to act quickly enough to clean up its toxic air.

The case follows a precedent set in April last year, when the same court ruled against Bulgaria in a similar case. Poland, like Bulgaria, will now be forced to publish new plans to describe how it will tackle its air pollution problem as quickly as possible.  

Responding to the judgement, EEB Air Policy Officer Margherita Tolotto said:

“This ruling in not just about Poland; it should serve as a warning to other governments that there are consequences for inaction on air pollution. We expect other governments will be sent to court next month.”

The other countries now facing similar action are the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom, which could all be sent to court next month.

The cases all involve breaches of EU legal limits for particulate matter, called ‘PM10’ and nitrogen dioxide, or NO2.

The burning of various fuels to heat homes is responsible for much of the particulate matter in the air in towns and cities in Poland, but, as in the rest of Europe, large-scale industry, industrial agriculture and coal-fired power plants provide a baseload of air pollution. NO2 pollution is especially linked to dirty diesel cars but is also emitted in large quantities by industry and coal-fired power stations.

According to the World Health Organisation: “There is a close, quantitative relationship between exposure to high concentrations of small particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) and increased mortality or morbidity, both daily and over time.” and “Epidemiological studies have shown that symptoms of bronchitis in asthmatic children increase in association with long-term exposure to NO2.”

The Royal Court of Justice, London

On Wednesday, the Royal Court of Justice ruled that the UK government’s plans to clean up toxic air in England were insufficient in a third straight victory for environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth described the London court’s decision as historic:

ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop said:

“The Judge has effectively allowed us to bring this matter straight back to court without delay if the government continues to fall short of its duties. [This] means we will be able to monitor the government’s actions even more effectively and hold them to account.”

Handing down judgment, Mr Justice Garnham said:

“The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough… and it seems court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.”

The judge ordered ministers to ensure that local authorities investigate and identify measures to tackle illegal levels of pollution in 33 towns and cities as soon as possible. ClientEarth described the victory as a “great embarrassment” for the government.

The German Federal Court, Leipzig

Also on Thursday, the German federal court in Leipzig will consider whether it is legal for the cities of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf to ban dirty diesel cars to help tackle toxic levels of pollution in their city centres.

The case has been brought by environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), which has campaigned for cleaner air across Germany.

The result in the case could have an impact on 15 million drivers of diesel cars in Europe’s biggest country as it would open the door for bans on the most polluting vehicles in cities across Germany.

Jürgen Resch, CEO of DUH said:

“We need to introduce driving bans to ensure that the auto-industry cleans up its cars.”

The result of this case will be announced next week, but the fact it is being heard has already brought significant media attention to the issue of polluted air. It adds additional pressure to the German government after the country was warned it too faces being sent to the European courts next month.


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UK Government loses third air pollution case as judge rules air pollution plans ‘unlawful’ (ClientEarth Press Release, 21 February 2018)