Germany, France and the U.K. bore the brunt of a European Union crackdown on worsening levels of air quality, as the EU sued them for violating rules on pollution limits.
The European Commission said the trio failed to respect limit values for nitrogen oxide — which is mostly a result of road traffic and industry — and particulate matter, which is mainly present in emissions from industry, domestic heating, traffic and agriculture. The EU also send out warning letters as a result of a probe started in the wake of Volkswagen AG’s dieselgate scandal, concerning the so-called type approvals for cars.
The move ratchets up tensions between the commission and EU member nations about how to tackle emissions damaging both human health and the planet’s atmosphere. While top policymakers are pursuing quick reductions, local authorities are having difficulty finding practical measures to switch industry and drivers away from their dependence on fossil fuels.
Hungary, Italy and Romania were also referred to the EU Court of Justice for “persistently high levels of particulate matter.”
The suits reveal the contradictions in environmental policies that have made making a transition to cleaner energy all the more difficult. One example: More than a decade ago, the EU embraced diesel as an alternative to gasoline that packs fewer greenhouse gases. Now, it’s the soot and nitrogen dioxide coming from diesel that are seen as a threat
The countries sent to the EU court “have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation,” said EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in a statement. “It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”
Diesel engines are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides, which causes respiratory problems and has been linked to premature deaths. Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic meter. More than seven years after the 2010 deadline, the average levels in Stuttgart — home to Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen’s Porsche unit — were about double what’s allowed. Some 65 other German cities also fell short of meeting targets.
Germany’s top administrative court in February issued a ground-breaking ruling pushing cities toward removing older diesel vehicles from inner cities to improve air quality, including banning some cars. The ruling backed lower courts which argued that banning diesel cars in inner cities is the most effective way to cut exhaust-gas levels swiftly and meet European Union pollution limits.
Encouraged by government tax subsidies and loose regulations, the European auto industry invested heavily in diesel as a profitable stop-gap technology to meet tighter rules on carbon dioxide emissions. Standards will again tighten in 2021, which means carmakers risk fines as consumers desert diesel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government has taken unprecedented steps to reduce pollution blamed on diesel cars and will pursue those measures.
“The European Commission certainly is aware of the path we’ve taken and I believe we will be making very quick progress on a number of fronts,” she told reporters at a European Union summit in Sofia.
The U.K. said it continues “to meet EU air quality limits for all pollutants apart from nitrogen dioxide, and data shows we are improving thanks to our efforts to bring levels of NO2 down.”
French Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot said improving air quality for the nation’s citizens “is difficult” because of past choices made in transport or energy policies. The government is “determined to act” and put an end to “this dispute in the shortest amount of time possible.”
In the wake of Volkswagen’s dieselgate scandal, the commission in December 2016 opened cases against Germany, Luxembourg and the U.K., issuing them on Thursday with additional warning letters for more information on national investigations and legal proceedings in these countries.
EU type-approval legislation requires countries to have “effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalty systems” in place to deter carmakers from breaking the law, for example by fitting technology to cheat on emission tests.
"We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part,” said EU Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska in the statement. “Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”
Germany “strongly rejects” the accusation that it violated the EU’s type approval rules after taking “efficient and consistent measures,” Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said in a statement.
“Of course the car companies will be held liable for their cheating,” said the minister.“No other member state has taken such wide-ranging and strict measures as Germany and communicated in such an open and transparent manner with the commission,”
— With assistance by Tony Czuczka, Jess Shankleman, Geraldine Amiel, and Chad Thomas