The European Commission has threatened legal action against France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK after they failed to protect their citizens’ health against dangerous levels of air pollution.
The Commission is pursuing infringement proceedings against these five countries —which could face large fines as a result of their crimes.
The EU issued final warnings today (15 February) after the countries ignored legal cautions over repeated breaches of pollution limits. The countries have two months to set out plans to cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions.
The citizens of the five states are being made to breath “illegal air”, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said, as the five countries consistently failed to ensure that air quality in their major cities meets the requirements set in European law.
Limits on NO2 are being broken, which can cause lung infections and heart disease.
In 2013, NO2 killed almost 70,000 people, which was almost three times more people than were killed in road traffic accidents that same year.
Children with asthma and elderly people with heart disease are particularly vulnerable to problems that coincide with breathing air polluted by NO2— such as wheezing, coughing, and bronchitis.
Over the last two years, the executive has taken legal action against 12 member states for failing to enforce the air quality standards for NO2 emissions.
The Juncker Commission launched its Environmental Implementation Review this month, which it said would improve the observance of EU rules.
The infringement procedure, or action against a member state that breaks EU law, begins with a request for information to the member state concerned, which must be answered within a specified period, usually two months.
If member states fail to act within two months, the Commission may decide to take the matter to the European Court Justice.
EU court action can take several years— and it is unclear right now whether any final decision would apply to the UK after it leaves the EU.
The outcome depends on the Brexit talks to begin later this year after Article 50, the legal process taking Britain out of the EU, is triggered in March.
“One thing is clear that for as long as the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, its rights and obligations apply and European law applies fully,” a Commission spokesman said in Brussels.
“For everything that happens later, this will undoubtedly be part of the discussions that will start this year.”
Last November, the British government was defeated in a High Court case over its failure to stop illegal air pollution across the country. British judges said the government‘s 2015 air quality plan did not adhere to EU directives or an earlier Supreme Court ruling.
ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said, “The action today by the EU Commission is a reminder of just how serious a problem the UK has with air pollution. Our High Court victory against the government in November of last year means ministers have to produce draft plans by April 24 to clean up our air as soon as possible.”
“With this final warning from the Commission, the government is under pressure from all sides to stop dithering and act decisively to meet its moral and legal obligations to clean up our unhealthy air.”
The Commission reported possible measures to lowering pollutant causing emissions while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. Proposed measures include;
- Reducing overall traffic volumes
- Reducing fuel used
- Switching to electric cars
- Adapting car behaviour;
“What the European Commission is doing today is essential. EU air pollution laws are designed to protect our health. There’s no excuse for countries that fail to implement these laws properly,” Louise Duprez, EEB Senior Policy Officer on Air Pollution, said.
“Children growing up in urban areas deserve better than to be forced to inhale toxic fumes known to cause bronchitis, asthma and other conditions. People all over Europe will welcome the European Commission’s action on this issue.”
An EEB report published today shows how these new limits are expected to help countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK reduce their levels of pollution.
The report argues that 78,000 additional lives could be saved by the new rules if correctly implemented.
It’s up to the member state authorities to choose the appropriate measures to address exceeding NO2 limits, but much more effort is necessary at the local, regional and national levels to meet the obligations of EU rules and safeguard public health, the Commission reported.
Germany, France, Spain and Italy each have separate infringement procedures against them due to breaching particulate matter laws, which cover all solid and liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere which could be hazardous.
Several other member states in violation, but only the aforementioned five have reached their last warning.