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Germany sued over major national air pollution failures

Christian Fernsby |
Germany’s Federal government is being taken to court over its long-term failure to control illegal and dangerous air pollutant emissions all over the country.

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Topics: GERMANY   

Lawyers at ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) have lodged a legal challenge with the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin and Brandenburg, in relation to flawed national air pollution programmes that put Germany on track to miss legal targets for four out of five pollutants in 2030.

The two organisations have already scored a streak of resounding victories in the country’s courts over air pollution.

Since 2010, emissions of ammonia (NH3) in Germany have soared far above legal limits – the breach among the worst in the EU. The country has also admitted that, without a major revamp of its pollution policy, it is on track to miss its 2030 legal targets for ammonia, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Ammonia is a particular problem because of its ability to spread across continents. Many will be familiar with the hazy smog that appears in European skies in spring and summer, when the fields are fertilised. As it travels, it reacts to create yet more PM2.5, tiny particles that can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. These particles pose a major threat to health, affecting virtually every organ in the human body.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “This essential law is set to halve the health impacts of air pollution in the EU by 2030, cutting premature deaths related to dirty air by over 50% – if governments work to enforce it. Yet, once again, Germany’s response to this law is a pale reflection of the legal requirements.

“It’s absolutely vital governments take their responsibilities seriously. A box-ticking exercise does not constitute ambitious national action to protect our lungs and, as we have proved, we will not shy away from challenging poor action on air quality in court.”

While urban NO2 pollution has fallen across the EU during the coronavirus lockdown, there is a residual level of PM2.5 pollution present in the air – a testament to the issue of background pollution, which the European Environment Agency has attributed in part to agriculture and industry.

Taddei said: “People are now familiar with urban pollution and the importance of tackling emissions from vehicles, but if we want air quality in cities to be safe for our health, we also need to address the unseen emissions from agriculture and industry. What many people won’t know is just how far these substances can travel and the harm they can do.”

The EU’s industrial farming sector is responsible for 90% of the bloc’s ammonia emissions – with 80% of these emissions coming from just 5% of farms. Meanwhile, Germany’s coal industry is responsible for vast quantities of NOx and SO2 being released into the air.

The lawyers say there are measures that the government must take now, and realities to be faced in the near term.

DUH CEO Jürgen Resch said: “No sector is adequately using the necessary technology to limit harmful emissions – be it coal-firing, wood-burning or diesel vehicles.

“This is particularly galling to note today, when it’s being suggested that air pollution can worsen the impacts of Covid-19.

“But it seems that this government thinks a selection of vague measures without deadlines or firm commitments is the right response. Chancellor Merkel is not meeting her responsibilities.

“That is why we decided to sue. This is currently the only way to get our government to deliver on its commitments to clean air, clean water and healthy ecosystems.”

Lawyer Caroline Douhaire, who is representing the organisations in the case, said: “Germany has never been a model student when it comes to implementing EU air quality law. The ongoing breaches of NO2 limits in cities across Germany have prompted multiple court rulings against authorities, as well as an EU-level case against the country itself.

“The German government must not make the same mistake in reducing national emissions under the NEC guidelines. We need measures in place now to secure the right emissions reductions in time – and currently, this is not what we’re seeing.”

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