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

A European car emissions testing centre. [Mike Dotta/Shutterstock]

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.

The Commission plans to write its highly controversial decision on car emissions into the Official Journal of the European Union in the coming days.

Together with member states, the EU executive approved the relaxation of standards for nitrogen oxide emissions back in October 2015. After the scandal that followed revelations of Volkswagen’s cheating of emissions tests, it emerged that many other car brands did not respect the current standards.

The increase in emissions limits is contested by both NGOs and local authorities, reflecting widely-held concerns among the general public.

“Air pollution is a subject that really worries people; we need to make progress on this,” said Mathias Vicherat, the cabinet director for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Along with the leaders of 19 other European Cities, Hidalgo plans to attack the EU’s decision as soon as it comes into force, even if many of her allies continue to hope that the Commission will reconsider its position in the face of such popular opposition.

European mayors urge clampdown on diesel emissions

The mayors of 20 European cities including Madrid, Paris and Copenhagen, but excluding London, have called for more stringent regulations to be put in place across the continent to tackle the deadly levels of air pollution caused by diesel vehicles. EURACTIV’s partner reports.

In order to have their complaint accepted by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), these cities must prove that they are directly concerned, as a legal entity, a CJEU source explained.

Following France’s 2015 regional governance reforms, the state can now pass on any fines it receives for non-compliance with environmental standards to the local authorities concerned. So French cities now have a stronger motive to take preventive action.

If the CJEU decides not to act on the cities’ request, the French state itself will have to bring the case to court. The Minister of Environment, Ségolène Royal, has given her backing to the Paris mayor’s actions. But this legal challenge may be undermined by the fact that France approved the decision on emissions limits at the EU’s Environment Council last October.

“Our basic arguments are solid,” Hidalgo said, referring to the public health risks posed by nitrogen oxide emissions.

A paradoxical infringement procedure

And the defenders of clean air appear to have another argument on their side: in spite of its “better regulation” drive, the European Commission is caught between two opposing sides on the subject.

On the one hand, the European executive is prosecuting member states whose air quality is not up to standard, and on the other, it is authorising car-makers to increase the level of pollution their vehicles emit.

This paradox is particularly striking in the case of nitrous oxide, a substance that damages the respiratory system. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against France in June 2015, after finding excessive concentrations of nitrous oxide in the air in 19 municipalities.

These municipalities were given until 2020 to bring their air pollution levels into conformity with European standards, with the exception of Paris and Grenoble, which were given more time.

But France is far from alone in this regard. In fact, many of Europe’s big countries are currently being prosecuted over their excessive nitrous oxide levels, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and Spain. These lawsuits were launched just months before the breaking of the Volkswagen scandal, which centred on emissions of this same gas.

Some 16 of the EU’s 28 countries are also being sued for excessive concentrations of fine particles, which are largely produced by diesel engines and industrial emissions. In France alone, no less than ten fine particle high-concentration zones have been identified (2).

For the Greens, these legal battles are a distraction form the fact that the European Parliament and Commission appear to share a common goal on the issue, which is to “get cars out of urban areas”. This objective was adopted in no uncertain terms as part of French Green MEP Karima Delli’s 2015 report on sustainable mobility.


The decision adopted on 28 October 2015 by the EU's Technical Committee on Motor Vehicles, composed of experts from member states and representatives from the Commission, gave car-makers the right to exceed the Euro 6 standards on emissions of nitrogen oxide gas, or NOx (80 mg/km since September 2015), by 110% from September 2017 and 50% from January 2020.

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