France loses diesel pollution fight in EU court

Diesel engines are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides (NO2) that the European Environment Agency says are responsible for 68,000 premature deaths per year in the EU. [Mic / Flickr]

The EU’s top court ruled on Thursday (24 October) that France has persistently exceeded the threshold limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a polluting gas from diesel motors that causes major health problems.

France “systematically and persistently exceeded the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide since Jan. 1, 2010,” the court said in a statement.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, referred the matter to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in May 2018 after almost a decade of warnings that went unaddressed.

France is the first of several member states, including Germany and Britain, that the commission has sued in court after it stepped up its anti-pollution fight in the wake of the so-called “Dieselgate” scandal that erupted in 2015.

In legal first, court faults France over air pollution

A court on Tuesday (25 June) found the French state had failed to take sufficient steps to limit air pollution around Paris, a legal first in the country hailed by environmental campaigners as a victory for victims of dirty air.

The motors caught up in the scandal – in which automakers installed special emission-cheating devices into their car engines – are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides that the European Environment Agency says are responsible for 68,000 premature deaths per year in the EU.

Nitrogen dioxide is toxic and can cause significant respiratory problems as one of the main constituents of traffic-jam smog.

Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic metre – but that level is often exceeded in many traffic-clogged European cities.

The judgement opens the way to possible sanctions at later stage if Paris does nothing to fix the situation.

Air pollution costs France €100 billion per year

The French Senate has called for new efforts to tackle air pollution, arguing it inflates healthcare costs, reduces economic productivity and agricultural yields, and has put Paris in the EU’s bad books. EURACTIV France reports

The case involved 24 areas in France, including the cities of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nice and Strasbourg, but also the alpine Arve Valley, France’s lorry-clogged gateway to Italy.

While France does not dispute the violation, it argued that the application of European air quality legislation “must be assessed in the light of the structural difficulties encountered” in applying it, the court said in a statement.

But for the judges EU law demands that when high pollution is found, the member state concerned is required to draw up an air-quality plan and to ensure that the danger period is “as short as possible”.

The court said “France clearly did not adopt, in due time, appropriate measures,” noting an “overrun for seven consecutive years”.

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).

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