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German govt faces legal action over air pollution

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-30 09:19

People living near some of Germany's busiest roads have launched legal action against the national government over the polluted air they say they are forced to breathe.

The case, which is backed by campaigners ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, is the latest in a series of challenges against European governments over their alleged failure to ensure air pollution levels are within World Health Organization, or WHO, targets.

The spate of courtroom challenges was intensified in May by comments from the advocate general to the European Court of Justice — one of the European Union's top lawyers — who said people were allowed to seek compensation, if they feel their lives or health have been endangered.

The group of seven claimants in the German case, who hail from the major cities of Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Dusseldorf, said they fear their health and the health of their children has been put at risk by politicians who have failed to reduce traffic congestion.

Volker Becker-Battaglia, one of the participants in the case, which is the first of its kind in Germany, told the BBC: "Air pollution is a problem you can't see. It's not in people's minds, but it's a killer."

He said 150,000 people drive vehicles past his house in Munich every day.

"It's horrible," he said. "We flee the city whenever we can."

The group claims fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which includes fuel combustion residue and which is so small it can enter the bloodstream, has averaged 19 μg/cubic meters in Berlin during the past decade, which far exceeds the WHO's limit of 5 μg/cu m.

The claimants say they are not alone: 99 percent of the world's population is breathing air that exceeds the WHO's limits, and around 7 million people die globally each year because of it.

The claimants are not seeking financial compensation but want the court to order the German government to educate people about air pollution.

But a spokesman for Germany's Environment Agency told Associated Press: "The WHO guide values are recommendations."

He said they are, therefore, not legally binding.

The case in Germany follows one in the United Kingdom in 2020 in which judges ended up ruling that 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah should have "air pollution" listed as a cause of her death. It was the first time air pollution had been officially blamed for a death in the UK.

In another case, a court in France ordered the French government in 2021 to pay a 10-million-euro ($9.7-million) fine for failing to improve air quality.

The EU, meanwhile, has said it is overhauling its Ambient Air Quality Directive, which is its major air quality legislation. However, the push to adopt stricter targets within the bloc is likely to be several years away from completing its journey through the complicated approval process.

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