Leiden Law Blog

A strong case against air pollution

A strong case against air pollution

Another action group is summoning the Dutch State to court over an environmental issue. This time it is Milieudefensie (an organisation for the defence of the environment) that has built a strong case against air pollution. A year ago in the historic Urgenda case, the state was obliged to reduce carbondioxide emissions in the near future.

Poor air quality

The writ concentrates on the levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Last year Milieudefensie measured  the air quality in several major cities in the Netherlands. The result was a report that shows that the standard for nitrogen dioxide exceeds the European standard at eleven places. All exceedances were measured on busy urban roads with heavy traffic. Previous research has shown that emissions of both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide are responsible for the premature deaths of thousands of people and for health issues of tens of thousands of people in the Netherlands.

European directive

The European standard stems from European directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe. It aims to safeguard human health and the environment as a whole. The provisions of this directive on nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter are unconditional and sufficiently clear and precise, and therefore confer rights on individuals. The directive states that Member States should comply with this directive 11 June 2010. The Dutch state, however - like many states - managed to postpone the attainment deadline for nitrogen dioxide until 2015. Though the directive is implemented in Dutch law, the limits for nitrogen dioxide are exceeded. On these grounds, it seems the state cannot escape its responsibility.

Air quality plan

Milieudefensie wants the state to take rapid action. According to the Janecek case that was brought before the European Court of Justice, natural or legal persons can compel the state to draw up an action plan if the limits are exceeded. Milieudefensie, that represents both natural persons and representing foundations, asks the state to end its unlawful act within six months and to make an air quality plan to that end. Measures could entail the introduction of cleaner environmental zones in cities, the promotion of driving electric vehicles and the reduction of speed limits on city roads.

World Health Organisation

The preamble of the European directive refers to the guidelines of the World Health Organisation. So does Milieudefensie. The World Health Organisation norms on air quality are far more stringent than the European directive. The norms are twice as strict as the European standards currently in force. According to these norms, both particulate and nitrogen dioxide levels are much too high. Milieudefensie argues that from the precautionary principle it follows, in this evident case of influence on human health and significantly premature deaths, that instead of the European norms these stricter norms should be maintained. It will be interesting to see whether the court will agree with this line of reasoning. But overall, it seems Milieudefensie really does have a strong case against air pollution.

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