France has failed to ‘protect human health’ on air pollution, according to EU ruling

In the first ruling of its kind, the EU’s top court has found that France has failed to fulfil its obligation under EU law to address illegal levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2) as soon as possible. 

The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has rejected all explanations put forward by the French government on why it has delayed action to tackle harmful levels of NO2 across the country that breached EU laws.

The French government tried to argue that tracking illegal levels of NO2 required complex structural changes that were both costly and time-consuming and had invoked socio-economic difficulties.

The CJEU has refused to accept these arguments, saying that: ‘Technical or structural difficulties, cannot be used by a country as a reason for fulfilling its legal obligation to protect human health.’

The court has also highlighted that these legal limits had been introduced over nine years ago and that French authorities are not planning to reduce air pollution to within those limits in certain areas before 2030.

If France continues to exceed the legal limits, the European Commission may start a second round of infringement proceedings, which could ultimately lead to fines against any countries that are found to breach the EU laws on air pollution.

Reacting to the judgement, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: ‘For the first time ever, the CJEU has found a Member State in breach of exceeding the legal limits for NO2, a pollutant mainly emitted by diesel vehicles in cities.’

‘Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, which have all been referred to the CJEU for their prolonged failure to address air pollution should all take heed of the ruling today, as we can now expect similar outcomes in those countries.’

‘These excuses have been used repeatedly by authorities across the EU who continuously refuse to take responsibility for their failures to clean up the air. Today’s ruling makes it clear that their reasons will no longer stand up before the court.’

Mr Taddei concluded: ‘Governments across Europe need to stop kicking the can down the road and start protecting people’s health by taking action now.’

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