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Right to clean air: European Commission refers Portugal to Court of Justice for breaching safe levels of nitrogen dioxide

The European Commission has referred Portugal to the Court of Justice of the European Union for the Member State’s poor air quality resulting from nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels that have repeatedly breached EU standards.

The right to clean air is enshrined in EU legislation, namely the Directive/2008/50/EC on ambient air quality that sets out limit values for key air pollutants and requires Member States to ensure these limits are not exceeded. 

Portugal has repeatedly failed to prevent the levels of nitrogen dioxide in areas including Lisbon and Porto from exceeding the annual limit set out in this Directive, as well as having failed to minimise the duration of these exceedances.

The Commission has deemed the efforts of Portuguese authorities to tackle this issue as “unsatisfactory and insufficient” and is therefore referring the Member State to the EU’s top court.  

Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant produced by transport and industry. Exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide increases the risk of respiratory problems such as bronchitis, with children suffering from asthma and elderly people with heart disease particularly vulnerable.  

Air pollution remains the most significant environmental issue in the EU, causing 400,000 premature deaths per year, of which 50,000 can be attributed to nitrogen dioxide, according to the European Environmental Agency.

Emilia Samuelsson, EEB Policy Officer for Air Quality and Noise, said: 

“We welcome the Commission’s initiative to step in and protect us from breathing toxic air. The failure of national governments to enforce air pollution limits is a threat to people’s health, and it is high time that they face the consequences of their inaction.” 

Francisco Ferreira, President of ZERO, Portugal, said: 

“Road traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels in the cities of Lisbon and Porto and air pollution levels are also up. We still do not have sufficient plans to tackle this huge public health problem and we need more stringent limits and much more immediate action.”

The EEB is Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ groups with 150 members in more than 30 countries.

For more information:

Emilia Samuelsson, EEB Policy Officer for Air Quality, emilia.samuelsson@eeb.org