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German government faces legal action over air pollution

German government faces legal action over air pollution

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Seven German citizens are taking their government to court over air pollution, NGOs ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe announced Monday.

By leaving national air pollution laws unchanged, Berlin failed to respond to new guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), which last year tightened its air quality guidelines, the claimants argue.

“This leaves people breathing in air that contains up to four or five times the amount of toxic pollution than scientists know is dangerous — and authorities with no mandate to change the situation,” ClientEarth said in a statement.

While air pollution levels in German cities dropped in past years and now often comply with EU legislation, they exceed what is considered safe based on the WHO’s latest recommendations.

The claimants — who include parents acting on behalf of their children, as well as people affected by asthma in four German cities — say that constitutes an infringement of their fundamental rights.

Constanze, one of the claimants from Düsseldorf who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of only being referred to by her first name, said she is taking action to protect the health of her two nine-year-old children.

“I live next to a monitoring station that shows that [air pollution] levels are way too high compared to WHO recommendations,” she said. “I believe that me and my children, as city residents, have a right to clean air.”

The lawsuit comes a month before the European Commission is set to unveil its proposal to revise EU air quality guidelines to align them more closely with the latest WHO recommendations.

The claimants point out that member countries won’t be obliged to comply with any new EU limits for several years after they’ve been agreed.

“There has always been an epic delay when it comes to EU countries complying with air pollution law — they need to take action now to prevent any more lives being blighted unnecessarily, and any more children carrying the legacy of dirty air for life,” said Irmina Kotiuk, a fundamental rights lawyer at ClientEarth.

Kotiuk said there are “strong and solid grounds” for Germany’s Constitutional Court to analyze the case and rule that the government has “a duty to adjust the legal framework in line with new scientific data on the health effects of air pollution.”

An opinion released by the Court of Justice of the EU in May suggested that countries could be held liable for health impacts caused by excessive air pollution.

Air pollution levels have fallen across the bloc in recent years, but polluted air still caused well over 300,000 premature deaths in 2019, according to the European Environment Agency. Experts warn that air quality is set to worsen this winter as people turn to coal, wood and even trash to heat their homes.

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