Hungary, With 13K Deaths Linked to Pollution, Ordered to Clean the Skies

Since 2008, the European Union has pushed to improve air quality by setting tough limits on pollution. Hungary on Wednesday became the latest EU nation found to be failing to meet those standards. 

Budapest, Hungary. (David Mark/Pixabay photo via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Hungary has not done enough to reduce air pollution in Budapest, the capital, and in two other heavily industrialized regions, Europe’s highest court ruled on Wednesday.

Under European law, Hungary could face fines if it does not comply immediately with the European Court of Justice’s finding.

The case began in 2018, with the European Commission alleging that Hungary was violating limits on concentrations of particulate matter. Particulate matter is made up of dust, pollen, soot, smoke and other particles suspended in the air that are harmful to human health and the environment. 

Smog has long been a persistent complaint in many European cities, and air pollution is considered Europe’s top environmental health risk with 379,000 premature deaths in the EU attributed to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018.

The case against Hungary is the latest of several that the commission gas brought against various EU member states in recent years. Since 2011, at least nine EU countries have been found violating air pollution rules. Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden were all previously found to have breached limits on particulate matter, while France exceeded levels of nitrogen dioxide. 

Hungary was accused of “systematically and persistently” exceeding the daily limit for particulate matter in Budapest since 2005. According to the commission, air pollution also was too bad since 2005 in the Sajo valley, where the mining city of Miskolc is located, and since 2011 in Pecs, a city near the Croatian border. 

The EU adopted new air pollution standards in 2008 as part of the Air Quality Directive, setting limits for particulate matter plus standards for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants such as lead and benzene.

Directives are legal acts the EU’s transnational political bodies agree on to achieve policy goals. Directives passed by the EU cover a wide range of topics from wildlife preservation to copyright rules. Member states are required to pass legislation to meet the goals of directives, but each state has a lot of leeway in crafting laws to meet those aims.

The court determined Wednesday that Hungary had “failed to fulfil its obligations” under the directive and did not take the necessary steps to “ensure that the exceedance period was kept as short as possible.”

A copy of the ruling is not available in English, but a news release from the Luxembourg-based court notes that Hungary, despite recording a “partial downtrend trend” in air pollution, did not make improve enough to meet air quality standards. 

The Central European nation argued, without success, that poor air quality within its borders was linked to pollution coming from neighboring states. 

But the court said the EU’s air quality standards were set with cross-border pollution taken into account. Regardless, the court ruled, Hungary needs to consider topographical and climatic features in its efforts to reduce air pollution. It added that Hungary’s plans for reducing air pollution were imprecise and inadequate. 

The European Environment Agency found that 13,100 premature deaths were linked to fine particulate matter in Hungary in 2018, one of the highest rates in Europe. 

Hungarian environmental groups have long complained about smog and are suing the Budapest city government to do more to combat air pollution. 

Clean Air Action Group, a Budapest environmental group, alleges air quality in the capital has even gotten worse in recent years. 

The mayor of Budapest, a progressive pro-environmental politician called Gergely Karacsony, has pledged to make the capital a greener city by expanding green spaces and limiting car traffic. Karacsony’s mayoral win in 2019 was a blow to far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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