Barcelona 'systematically' breached EU air quality directive, rules European Court of Justice

Magistrates say situation was life-threatening for 4.2m between 2010 and 2018 in metropolitan area

Barcelona during a high pollution episode on July 1, 2019
Barcelona during a high pollution episode on July 1, 2019 / Nazaret Romero

ACN | @agenciaacn | Barcelona

December 22, 2022 11:03 AM

December 22, 2022 01:24 PM

Barcelona "systematically" breached the EU air quality directive between 2010 and 2018, according to a European Court of Justice ruling released on Thursday.

The Catalan capital and its metropolitan area surpassed the maximum levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during almost a decade, said magistrates, who argued that the life of 4.2 million people in the area was put at risk during this period.

The sentence refers to Barcelona and some of its neighboring counties: Vallès Oriental, Vallès Occidental, and a part of Baix Llobregat.

The EU court also ruled a breach of the directive for Madrid and its metropolitan area, affecting 3.1 million people.

The case dates back to 2019 when after several years of warnings to Barcelona and Madrid, the European Commission took Spain to the European Court of Justice.

Nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by 31% since 2015

Three years ago, levels were still well above the threshold, but the situation has improved.

Indeed, the local council published figures from several air pollution stations in the city showing that the levels of NO2 have decreased by 31% since 2015 in the areas with the most road traffic.

Data shows that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have dropped from an average of 55 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) to 38 between 2015 and 2022 in the places with the most road traffic – the figure dropped to 34 during the pandemic but has risen since then.

The levels of NO2 in areas with less traffic were 38 µg/m3 on average in 2015 and have fallen to 25 seven years later, with a low of 22 recorded during the pandemic.

The EU's annual limit value for the protection of human health is 40 µg/m3, and the Barcelona local council already assumed on Tuesday that the city and its metropolitan area would be found guilty on Thursday despite complying with the European threshold for three years.

Authorities working on solutions

Since the case was taken to trial, the Catalan government and Barcelona metropolitan area councils have been working on finding solutions to improve air quality.

However, the situation has improved a lot for authorities since 2018, especially after the low emissions zone, the Catalan climate action secretary, Anna Barnadas, said after learning about the ECJ ruling.

Between 2010 and 2018, 17 measuring stations were above the European threshold. In 2019, two recorded higher pollution levels than the ones allowed, while in 2022, only one.

Officials believe that air quality will improve across Catalonia due to the new low-emissions zones expected to come into effect in several municipalities.

But for Barcelona's city council, the measures currently in place are not enough, and it urged the Catalan and Spanish governments to "do more" to fight pollution levels.

Public administrations should push forward "brave" initiatives with "much more effort," Barcelona councilor for urbanism Janet Sanz said during a press conference on Thursday in the city hall.

Citizens cannot get compensation

The ECJ has also ruled that citizens cannot demand compensation from any state after not complying with the air quality limits. 

On Thursday, the European Court ruled that obligations from the air quality legislation do not set "individual rights for citizens" so they can request compensation. In fact, for the judges, the law is only set "with the general goal of protecting human and environmental health."

Even if citizens cannot get compensation, they can indeed "demand responsibilities" from governments and state courts can indeed "fine" if the pollution limits are not complied with.