Germany Broke EU Emissions Laws, Top Court Says

Italy, France, Romania, Hungary and the United Kingdom have all lost similar cases.

Berlin’s Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station on a frigid January night. (Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Germany has been violating European Union pollution standards since 2010, the bloc’s top court ruled on Thursday. 

Not available in English, the decision from the European Court of Justice says that Berlin failed to take appropriate measures to curb nitrogen dioxide emissions between 2010 and 2016. 

“The Federal Republic of Germany has manifestly failed to adopt appropriate measures in good time to ensure that the time limits for exceeding the limit values ​​fixed for NO2 are as short as possible,” the Seventh Chamber wrote. 

Germany ran afoul of the 2008 Air Quality Directive, which caps average annual airborne levels of nitrogen dioxide at 40 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2018, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, brought complaints against seven countries — Germany, France, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary — for failing to curb emissions. Germany joins France, Hungary and Italy in challenging such complaints before the Court of Justice unsuccessfully. 

“The decision to refer member states to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans,” Karmenu Vella, then-commissioner for environment, said in a statement at the time. “We have said that this commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim.”

In Thursday’s ruling, the court found that Germany had violated the annual nitrogen dioxide limit in 26 of 89 zones assessed, which includes the country’s largest cities Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. Germany further violated hourly emissions limits in two areas, around Stuttgart and Frankfurt. 

Germany failed to persuade the three-judge panel that it had taken measures to combat emissions. “None of the documents submitted to the Court for examination by the Federal Republic of Germany makes it possible to establish that the said measures were in fact introduced and, if necessary, to verify the date at which these limit values ​​may just as effectively be respected,” the court wrote. 

The country’s largest car manufacturer, Volkswagen, has lost a series of cases before the court over the Dieselgate scandal, in which the carmaker was found to be using devices that falsely lowered emissions. 

Helped by the increased usage of electric cars and local ordinances limiting traffic or banning diesel cars from city centers, emissions have decreased across Europe since 2016. The Umweltbundesamt, the German Environment Agency, found that 90 cities failed to meet standards in 2016, but by 2019 that number had dropped to 25. Emissions dropped even lower during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people were forced to stay home. 

Car and truck emissions are the primary source of nitrogen dioxide. The pollutant can cause respiratory problems, lung disease and cancer, as well as harming the environment. According to the commission, around 400,000 die prematurely in the EU every year due to exposure to pollutants. 

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