European cities take Commission to court over air quality in landmark case

Paris, Madrid and Brussels accuse the Commission of giving in to car manufacturers and being too lenient on NOx emissions. [Martin Cathrae/ Flickr]

In the same week that the European Commission announced it would take six countries to court for breaking air pollution limits, three major cities said they would start legal action against the EU executive. They accuse the Commission of  giving in to automotive lobbies. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Condemned in January for failing to comply with European standards for air quality, Paris, Brussels and Madrid are now taking the European Commission to court.

The three European capitals are seeking to bring a joint action for the annulment of the European regulation on nitrogen emissions (NOx) from diesel cars.

The Commission is under fire because several European capitals accuse it of double standards.

Mayors request drastic legislation to cut car emissions

The mayors of nine EU capitals have asked the European institutions to adopt tougher mandatory legislation to minimise air pollution by cars, including a new Euro 7 ‘technologically neutral’ standard for vehicles, and that all vehicle sales be ‘zero emissions’ in the coming two decades.

They acknowledge the EU executive has taken measures to tackle pollution from cars with the 2016/646 directive adopted in the wake of Dieselgate, but accuse the institution of giving car manufacturers too much time to adapt to real driving emissions (RDE) tests.

The regulation adopted in 2007 caps maximum acceptable NOx emissions from diesel cars during RDE tests at 80 mg/km. From September 2017 for new models and from September 2019 for new vehicles, NOx emissions can legally exceed the 80 mg/km by up to 110%.

From January 2020 for new models and January 2021 for new vehicles, NOx emissions can still exceed the limit imposed by up to 50%. If the cities win the case, they can impose the 80 mg/km NOx emissions limit but it will be based on new road tests.

Off-limit new diesel cars evade European city bans

The vast majority of new diesel-powered vehicles that don’t meet EU emission limits still manage to escape low emission zones or diesel bans in European cities, according to new research published today (14 March).

Cities lead the way

On 4 May, the Court of Justice dismissed some 1,500 citizens, most of which were French, after they sought compensation following the adoption of the regulation.

“We need the European Union to support us, not give regulatory protection to air pollution. I am proud to stand beside the Mayors of Madrid and Brussels on behalf of millions of people from European cities, to say our voices can no longer be silenced,” said Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo.

This is the first time cities have taken joint action against the Commission.

“Cities have to be a stronghold of conscience,” said Mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena.  She believes this joint action: “reveals the leading role of cities as the main experts in the problems of citizens and, therefore, the main defenders of their causes”.

In the United States, the city of New York has taken legal action against the five largest oil companies responsible for 11% of global CO2 emissions.

At the same time, 17 states have filed lawsuits against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for regressions by the Trump administration on fuel and vehicle emissions standards, which were introduced by EPA under Obama’s administration.

Europe watches as US vows to ditch car fuel efficiency rules

The Trump administration on Monday (2 April) rejected an Obama-era plan to make automobiles more fuel efficient, setting off a debate about the EU’s own emission standards, which are currently being discussed in Brussels.

Hunter becomes the hunted

But the Commission was busy doling out justice on Thursday, when it finally confirmed it would launch legal proceedings against six member states for violating air quality rules.

After months of deliberation the EU executive decided that Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and the United Kingdom should be referred to the Court of Justice.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain were all granted a reprieve for now but the Commission insisted that their efforts to combat bad air quality would continue to be monitored closely.

Commission gears up against air polluters, sends six countries to court

The European Commission announced on Thursday (17 May) the launch of legal action against six member states accused of breaking air pollution limits. Three other polluters were put on notice for now.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe