Polish air quality ruling is warning to ‘toxic bloc’ governments

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled against Poland for persistently breaching EU air quality limits and failing to act quickly enough to improve the situation. The ruling sends a strong message to nine other Member States that have been issued final warnings by the European Commission.

The nine other countries facing similar action are: the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom, which could all be sent to court next month.

Margherita Tolotto, EEB Policy Officer said:

“There’s a toxic bloc of EU countries that are consistently breaching air quality laws and have been far too slow to clean up their air. This ruling in not just about Poland; it should serve as a warning to other governments that there are consequences for inaction on air pollution. The European Commission has been very clear that a Europe that cares about its citizens cannot ignore this invisible killer. We expect other governments will be sent to court next month.”

Last month the European Commission said: “A Europe that protects cannot sit by as 400,000 Europeans die from poor air quality each year”. A meeting was held with Environment Ministers from nine countries, dubbed a ‘toxic bloc’ for failing to meet EU air pollution limits for particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Pending EU Infringement Proceedings

Final warnings issued for:
Country PM10 NO2
Czech Republic X
Germany X
Spain X
France X X
Italy X X
Hungary X
Romania X
Slovakia X
United Kingdom X

Experts within the European Commission are now assessing data and plans submitted by Member States since the meeting last month. After many years of breaches and inaction, additional information sent since the January meeting is unlikely to be significant enough to influence expert advice.

The EEB has previously warned that Commission delays and national inaction were undermining EU air quality laws.

The 28 European Commissioners will have a final vote on whether to send cases to court, but they appear to be united in their desire to protect European citizens from dangerous levels of air pollution.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella has clearly stated that “inaction has consequences” and that “we can delay no more” – heavily hinting that additional cases will be sent to the court at the next opportunity, likely to be around the second week of March 2018.

 Commenting on the situation in Poland, Tolotto said:

“Today’s ruling is a victory of people across Poland because their government will now have to take its responsibility by publishing a new and more effective plan to reduce emissions and ensure clean air. Polish people will need to be supported during a just transition away from polluting fossil fuels and beyond coal, towards clean and renewable sources of energy.”

For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer


Question & Answers:

What is the difference between this court action and cases in the national courts?

In many countries citizens and local campaign groups have followed a bottom-up approach, using European laws to bring cases against their governments. Just this week, ClientEarth won a case against the UK government and a federal court in Germany is set to rule later today on whether diesel cars can be banned in German cities.

But campaign groups do not always have the resources to fight cases in the national courts and the European Commission is responsible for ensuring European laws are properly implemented. By taking national governments to court, they can ensure the people all over Europe enjoy their right to clean and healthy air.

What have other countries done, or said they will do, to improve their air?

Some governments have been more transparent than others about their plans.

Germany made the news when it emerged it was investigating the introduction of free public transport and the retrofitting of dirty diesel cars. However, the German plans make no mention of coal or lignite power stations, which are the largest single-sources of air pollution in Europe.

France repeated promises made in May 2017 including supporting the use of electric cars and setting-up zones where trafic will be limited. Campaigners have said these measures are clearly inadequate.  

Slovakia has provided detailed information about the EU funds being invested in measures to tackle air pollution and, unlike Germany, made explicit mention of the need to address pollution from large combustion plants like coal-fired power stations.

What should governments do to improve their air?

Serious action is required to reduce the environmental impact of energy, food and transport.

Energy systems need to be based on clean, renewable energy that can deliver commitments made under the Paris climate agreement. Reducing wasted energy through improved efficiency and better designed products will also be essential. Higher EU targets are required and Europe must move beyond coal before 2030.

We also need a sustainable food system with steps taken to reduce emissions at all stages from production to consumption. A reformed common agricultural policy must work in harmony with nature, not against it.

Emissions from transport must be addressed, cutting subsidies for diesel cars and taking the most polluting vehicles off of our streets. Effort must be made to encourage a move to zero-emissions transport and to develop improved infrastructure that’s fit for the 21st century.

What kind of pollution are we talking about?

The case against Poland, and infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Hungary and Slovakia, are related to breaches of limits for airborne particulate matter, called PM10.

Cases again Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Romania and the United Kingdom concern nitrogen dioxide pollution, or NO2.

What causes this pollution?

PM10 pollution can come into the air from various sources including motor vehicles, burning substances to heat homes, burning coal for energy, construction sites, agriculture and industry.

In Poland, the burning of various fuels to heat homes is responsible for much of the particulate matter in towns and cities, but large-scale industry, industrial agriculture and coal-fired power plants provide a baseload of air pollution across Europe.

NO2 pollution is especially linked to dirty diesel cars but is also emitted in large quantities by industry and coal-fired power stations.

What are its effects?

The World Health Organisation provides the following summaries:

PM10: “There is a close, quantitative relationship between exposure to high concentrations of small particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) and increased mortality or morbidity, both daily and over time. Conversely, when concentrations of small and fine particulates are reduced, related mortality will also go down – presuming other factors remain the same. This allows policymakers to project the population health improvements that could be expected if particulate air pollution is reduced.”

NO2Epidemiological studies have shown that symptoms of bronchitis in asthmatic children increase in association with long-term exposure to NO2. Reduced lung function growth is also linked to NO2 at concentrations currently measured (or observed) in cities of Europe and North America.

For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer