last chance

EU takes Germany to court for urban air pollution

Thanks, it was getting hard to breathe up here. Source: Reuters

If you’ve felt like Berlin has been shielding Germany’s domestic car industry from answering for of emissions cheating over the past few years, Brussels has just confirmed your suspicions. The European Union is taking Germany to court for excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide in several cities. It also issued a formal warning with regard to the country’s slow reaction to the diesel emissions scandal.

Brussels is taking action against several other countries as well. Referral to the European Court of Justice is the next step in enforcement if previous notices do not produce results, and is fairly routine. However, it does increase the political pressure on the government to address the issues. It also fuels the national debate in Germany on a diesel ban in cities and the retrofitting of hardware to limit noxious emissions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted calmly to the legal action, commenting that Germany is “on a very good path” to getting clean air in the cities. A formal notice of excessive NO2 levels in 2015 prompted the government to launch a clean air program to help cities meet the standards. Nonetheless, 66 German cities registered excessive NO2 in 2017 – 20 of them by a significant amount.

“The states referred to court today have received sufficient 'last chances' over the last decade to improve.”

Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment

The European Commission criticized the German government in 2016 for not penalizing Volkswagen in the wake of the diesel emissions scandal. They also found fault with Berlin for not having sufficient mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with emissions standards. The EU proceeded Thursday to the next step with charges that Germany disregarded regulations for vehicle model registration.

“If we want to prevail in court, we need greater and faster progress in getting clean air,” said Svenja Schulze, the Social Democratic environment minister in Berlin. She urged a rapid retrofitting of diesel vehicles.

The EU also referred France and Britain to the European court for violations of nitrogen dioxide levels in cities. It charged Hungary, Italy and Romania for excessive levels of particulate matter. In addition to Germany, the formal notice of negligence regarding diesel emissions was issued to Italy, Luxembourg and Britain.

“The member states referred to the court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation,” said Karmenu Vella, the EU environment commissioner. “It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”

The last “last chance” for the six countries was a January ministerial summit convened by Mr. Vella.  “The six member states in question did not present credible, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution, within the agreed limits and as soon as possible, as required under EU law,” the commission announcement said.

If the EU prevails in its court case against Germany, there could be a second procedure to determine how big a penalty could be levied. Given that the commission’s announcement blamed air pollution for “both chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer,” that penalty could be significant.

Klaus Müller, head of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, said the EU’s legal action should be a “wake-up call” for the government. He also urged quicker action on hardware solutions for diesel engines and called for the automakers to help finance other efforts to clean up urban pollution.

Handelsblatt reporters Ruth Berschens, Silke Kersting and Dietmar Neuerer contributed to this article. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC editor for Handelsblatt Global, adapted it into English. To contact the author:

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