20 cities challenge relaxation of EU air pollution standards

Paris is one of 20 cities to be taking legal action against the Commission's decision to relax air pollution standards for vehicles. [Moyan Brenn/Flickr]

Ordered to cut air pollution levels by Brussels, a group of EU cities are taking the European Commission to court over its decision to relax car emissions standards, making their objectives even less attainable. EURACTIV France reports.

The EU’s muddled position on air pollution has angered the bloc’s major cities.

For Paris, Madrid and Copenhagen, the EU’s decision to give carmakers more freedom to pollute is unacceptable. But since it was discreetly added to the Official Journal of the European Union on 26 April, this decision is now officially part of EU law.

Finding themselves trapped between their obligations to improve air quality and the contradictory rulings of the European executive, 20 European cities have joined together to attack the decision at the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).

Green light

“To be able to begin this challenge, we had to wait for the comitology decision to be published,” said a source in the European Parliament. Now that the decision is official, the cities have the green light to begin their legal challenge.

The head of cabinet for Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, told EURACTIV France, “We will launch civil action cases at the CJEU for an annulment, along with 19 other European cities, and for compensation.”

This legal challenge enjoys broad public support. More than 125,000 people have signed a petition calling on Europe to guarantee the application of its air pollution standards by all the industry sectors concerned.

Commission set to override 125,000-signature air pollution petition

The Commission’s decision to increase car emissions limits is set to be written into EU law, despite a petition launched by a group of 20 European cities and signed by 125,000 people. EURACTIV France reports.

But the Commission has so far been deaf to these demands.

“If the CJEU will not receive our complaint, we will ask the French government to take action. It should accept, as Ségolène Royal has publically supported the petition,” the head of cabinet added.

The Green delegation in the European Parliament sent a letter to the French minister for ecology, asking her to take the case to the CJEU. Again, the request has gone unanswered.

France’s ambiguous position

Despite publically supporting the petition, Royal finds herself in an uncomfortable position on the issue of air pollution.

In October 2015, member states, including France, validated the EU executive’s proposal to relax nitrogen oxide emissions limits for vehicles, following the Volkswagen scandal.

Dieselgate exposes member state opposition to emissions curbs

Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and most Eastern member states are reluctant to adopt stricter rules to limit emissions from diesel vehicles, despite watered down proposals from the European Commission.

This decision was justified by manufacturers’ claims that it is impossible to make vehicles comply with the existing standards when tested under real driving conditions.

“But this concession to the carmakers will obviously have a direct impact on the level of air pollution in Europe,” a source at the European Parliament said.

Certain European cities, including Paris and London, are already in contravention of the EU’s air pollution limits. They fear that this extra leniency will only compound the problem.

Air pollution and climate change top French environmental concerns

The French General Commission on Sustainable Development (CGDD) has published its annual study on France’s environmental concerns. Air quality has become a more prominent issue than ever before. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against France in June 2015, for the excessive levels of nitrogen oxide recorded in 19 municipalities. Germany, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and Spain are also being prosecuted by the executive.

France’s inability to manage its nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions in many of its cities could cost the country €200 million per year in fines, according to government estimates.

Under the new system of local and regional governance, these fines could end up on the desks of local mayors, rather than the French treasury. Local authorities can now be made liable for any action taken against France in an area that falls under their jurisdiction.

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