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EU citizens could sue governments over air pollution

A European Court of Justice advisor has confirmed that governments could be held liable if they do not meet their promises to improve air quality.

Forget betting on the football or waiting for your tax rebate to come through, why not sue your national government for allowing local air pollution levels to reach dangerous levels?

Okay, I’m only half joking – but when the World Health Organisation announced that 99 percent of the global population breathes air that exceeds air quality limits, perhaps those with the power to solve this problem need a rude awakening.

That’s what one Parisian had in mind when he requested €21 million in damages from the French government for his declining health, which he blames on the city’s notoriously poor air quality.

According to an opinion from Advocate General Juliane Kokott, any citizen living in the European Union could  legitimately make demands of this kind, in particular when nations aren’t meeting air quality standards set out by the organisation.


What is up with European air quality?

Before we all start jumping on the government-suing bandwagon, it’s worth noting that although Kokott supports the notion, she believes drawing a definitive link between the breach in EU air quality limits and health issues will be difficult.

That said, there are some shocking details about the lack of action by the French government that could be end up being pretty damning throughout the case.

In 2019, for example, the European Court of Justice stated that France had ‘systematically and persistently’ exceeded the limit for nitrogen dioxide pollution (AKA the gross air that comes out of cars, trucks, buses, power plants, etc).

That same court sued President Emmanuel Macron’s government €10 million in 2021 for failing to lower air pollution to acceptable levels. Macron has also faced scrutiny for not taking enough action to reduce France’s CO2 emissions.

The case will certainly be an eye-opener for the French government – as well as EU members guilty of illegal air pollution like Poland, Italy, and Romania – whether the Paris man wins or not.

In the meantime, what is France doing to improve air quality?

Sidewalks, cycle paths, and green spots

It should come as no surprise that the biggest cause of air pollution –especially in densely-populated urban areas – is emissions from fossil fuel reliant vehicles.

However, the pandemic wasn’t good for nothing. It helped us see how impactful fewer car journeys could be for the environment in light of a record drop in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Likewise, city sidewalks were expanded to encourage social distancing and busy roads were pedestrianised to create more outdoor seating space for cafés and restaurants.

It might’ve sucked, but the pandemic forced us to adapt. As a result, ‘walkable cities’ and car-free zones are being embraced on a wide scale as nations look to lower their CO2 output and become more eco-friendly by any means necessary.

A green Paris for you and me

On the back of creating thousands of new bike lanes during COVID, Paris is hoping to rival EU cities Amsterdam and Copenhagen as one of the most bike-friendly cities in Europe.

To do this, a massive €250million has been invested into improve the cycling infrastructure of the French capital in a project expected for completion by 2026.

The money will be used to build thousands of bike stands and carve our more cycle paths, with the aim that citizens and tourists will be able to cycle from one end of Paris to the Other.

Anne Hidalgo, labelled ‘the greenest Mayor Paris has ever had’ has put forward plans for a low-traffic zone in four central districts of the city. It would ban people from passing through those areas, allowing only local residents and businesses to travel around.

And finally, The Champs-Élysées has already seen the approval of a €250 million plan to completely pedestrianize the famous shopping street by 2030. The 1.9km stretch is also set to transform into ‘an extraordinary garden’ that is lined with lush greenery.

So while I’m all for citizens firing back at their government (go off!), it looks like the ball is already rolling to limit pollution from travel, especially in France’s capital.

Let’s hope being sued is enough of a threat for other European governments to fast track their green-focused plans.