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Germany failed to cut dangerous city pollution, top EU court rules
pollution

Germany failed to cut dangerous city pollution, top EU court rules

2 min. 03.06.2021
Luxembourg-based ECJ faults frequent failures to limit pollutants which cause respiratory problems and are linked to premature deaths
A traffic sign indicates the speed limit in order to improve air quality in a street in Berlin's Mitte (centre) district on Thursday.
A traffic sign indicates the speed limit in order to improve air quality in a street in Berlin's Mitte (centre) district on Thursday.
Photo credit: AFP

Germany was handed a stinging rebuke from the European Union’s top court for consistently failing to clean up dirty air in its cities from Berlin to Cologne, endangering public health.

“Between 2010 and 2016, Germany systematically and persistently exceeded the limit values for nitrogen dioxide,” the EU Court of Justice said in a ruling on Thursday.

A 2018 crackdown on dirty air by the European Commission included the U.K., Germany and France, with the EU regulator accusing them of failing to meet limits on nitrogen oxide, which is mostly caused by road traffic and industry. EU court judges in previous rulings also chided France and the U.K. for “persistently” exceeding limits.

Germany saw a wave of litigation in 2018 over air pollution in inner cities and various courts said that local governments needed to improve their plans, including banning older, and more polluting, diesel vehicles from streets that suffered most from pollution. Since then the government has improved its pollution targets.

Stephan Stracke, a deputy leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative caucus, said the court’s ruling had been “overtaken by reality” as Germany had achieved a “massive” improvement in air quality in recent years.

“It is a great success of our policy that we have achieved this without blanket driving bans, but with incentives for low-emission vehicles, technical innovation and through retrofitting of local public transport,” Stracke said in an emailed statement.

The courts have become an increasingly successful arena for campaigners to hold governments and countries to account over pollution and climate change. Germany’s highest court said in April that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s climate-protection efforts were falling short.

“The judgment refers to the past,” Hildegard Mueller, president of the German auto industry’s lobby group VDA, said. “The development of the last few years shows a massive improvement of the air in our cities. Vehicle emissions have been reduced through considerable efforts of the car industry.”

Autos are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory problems and have been linked to premature deaths. Some EU countries have consistently breached pollution limits set my the bloc. Air pollution kills more than 400,000 Europeans each year and about 60,000 Germans, according to the European Environment Agency

Not-for-profit environmental law firm ClientEarth last year sued Germany “over its long-term failure to control illegal and dangerous air pollutant emissions all over the country.”

“Any new government must ensure that the roughly 10 million fraudulent diesel cars still circulating our streets need to be taken of the roads or be retrofitted at the expense of the carmakers,” said DUH, a German environmental NGO that successfully sued local German governments over pollution previously.

The case is: C-635/18, European Commission v. Federal Republic of Germany.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.