Last week, the European Commission sent six countries to Europe’s highest court over air pollution. Germany, France, and the U.K. are accused of breaching EU standards for nitrogen dioxide limits. Meanwhile, Italy, Hungary, and Romania will face the court over breaching particulate matter standards.

London and pollution are two old friends. Image credits: David Holt.

Air pollution kills more than 400,000 people in the EU each year. Attempting to limit that damage, the EU imposes strict air quality standards. The legislation is well established for years, and the countries have received several warnings — yet they failed to take significant action to remediate the problem. The UK, at least, has been taken to court over its air quality before — more than once.

If the countries don’t address the problem, they are facing up to a few billions of euros in fines.

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Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella said:

“The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans. We have said that this Commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. The Member States referred to the Court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale. But legal action alone will not solve the problem. That is why we are outlining the practical help that the Commission can provide to the national authorities’ efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns.”

The unprecedented measure shows that the EU takes its environmental targets seriously, and suing six countries, including the continent’s three largest economies, shows just how far they are willing to go for those targets. Not all is good in Europe, but the fact that the Union’s bureaucratic instruments are used to enforce environmental objectives is encouraging.

In the European Union, air quality has generally improved over the past decades, but things are still very problematic, and in some regards, the EU still lags behind the US. However, both areas would still benefit from more ambitious interventions, a 2015 study concluded.

“Although the U.S. and EU have achieved significant improvements in air quality, the area of air quality management in both regions still requires a more integrated and ambitious approach,” the study read.

Since 2015, however, the EU has tightened regulations, whereas under the current administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency is slowly strangling itself. It remains to be seen if current trends will continue — the recently-announced trials may play a pivotal role in future developments.

Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elżbieta Bieńkowska added:

“We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part. Zero emissions cars are the future. Meanwhile, complying with emissions legislation is a must. Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”