Seven German citizens have announced that they are suing the government over air pollution levels. The claimants, who live in Germany’s four most polluted cities, say that the levels are violating their fundamental rights – among the seven are asthma sufferers and parents acting on behalf of their children. The lawsuit comes on the back of the World Health Organisation (WHO) tightening its recommended air pollution limits in September 2021 and the fact that the corresponding German laws did not change with it.Is this lawsuit likely to prove successful and might it signal a new avenue in the fight against climate change?
Air pollution levels in Germany have declined in recent years and they comply with current EU law in many places. But the levels now no longer meet WHO guidelines – in some cases, the acceptable level is now 75% less, meaning people are breathing in air containing up to five times the amount of pollution scientists know to be dangerous. In April this year, scientists from WHO confirmed that 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds the organisation’s air-quality limits. Around one in 10 cases of lung cancer worldwide is attributed to air pollution.
In April this year, scientists from WHO confirmed that 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds the organisation’s air-quality limits.
According to Volker Becker-Battaglia, a claimant from Munich who suffers from asthma: “In many ways air pollution is an invisible issue – not enough people understand how badly it’s affecting them. Air pollution may not often be named the official cause of death, but it claims lives – and causes long-term diseases, including cancer, heart problems, shortness of breath and strokes.” He says that there are ways to reduce the pollution, but the political will is lacking and he hopes that the lawsuit will compel change.
This is not the first case or ruling in Europe about air pollution and its impact. In 2021, the French government was ordered to pay a fine of €10 million over failures to improve air quality. There were warnings that the court would not hesitate to apply further penalties if the authorities did not act quickly to combat smog. In France, air pollution is believed to cause around 40,000 premature deaths each year and Paris has been singled out for persistently high levels of PM10 microparticle pollution.
In France, air pollution is believed to cause around 40,000 premature deaths each year and Paris has been singled out for persistently high levels of PM10 microparticle pollution.
Fighting air pollution is not the only climate battle taking place in the courts. Earlier this month, a UN committee declared that the Australian government violated the human rights of Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders by failing to adequately protect them from the impacts of climate change. The islands have been affected by a rise in sea levels, flooding, temperature increases, the loss of shoreline, and the extinction of native communities. Although Australia has taken some measures, legal bodies have determined that they are not enough. It is the first time that a judicial body focused on human rights has told a government to pay for climate change-linked harm and has been described by lawyers as “pathbreaking”.
The claimants are not seeking financial redress but would instead compel the government to take action to reduce the levels of pollution. Earlier this year, an adviser to Europe’s top court suggested that EU citizens may be able to sue their governments for financial compensation if illegal levels of air pollution had negatively impacted their health, but this case is only about forcing action. It is entirely possible that it may succeed. The lawsuit is being supported by ClientEarth, a non-profit legal organisation with a strong track record in holding governments to account. It has previously gone to court in Brussels, winning a five-year battle for clean air in 2021.
Earlier this year, an adviser to Europe’s top court suggested that EU citizens may be able to sue their governments for financial compensation if illegal levels of air pollution had negatively impacted their health…
In cities where legal action had been taken, air pollution sank twice as fast – win or lose, it’s probable that the case will lead to a reduction in toxic air levels. A victory could lead to Germany being a continental or even global leader in improving air pollution and the claimants’ desire that the government educates the public could set a precedent other nations might follow. Europe faces a mixed outlook on air pollution. There are worries that people will burn coal or wood in order to heat their homes during the energy crisis while there are new European laws on the cards regarding improving air standards. This lawsuit is a key example of people demanding their government live up to their climate promises.