Climate change

Legal action against German government over air pollution

On World Environmental Health Day, a group of residents have sued the German government for failing to protect their health. How? By not taking action against air pollution. This is the first time such action has been taken in Germany on the basis of human rights legislation.

Fighting for the right to clean air

Seven residents of Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf are suing the German government over high air pollution levels. The group, which contains asthma sufferers, say it is violating their right, and the right of their children, to breathe clean air. Living in large urban areas, they are exposed to air pollution levels up to five times higher than accepted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Currently, Germany’s air pollution levels are in line with national law. However, they do not align with WHO’s latest guidelines, which have cut acceptable levels by up to 75% based on the latest science. The average nitrogen dioxide levels in Munich, for example, are over seven times higher than the WHO’s recommended limits. According to Germany’s Environment Agency, the WHO’s recommendations are not legally binding. However, campaigners are calling for a change in the law according to the current scientific consensus.

With the support of the environmental organisations ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the claimants are not demanding financial compensation. Rather, by filing the case in Germany’s constitutional court protecting citizens’ fundamental rights, they want the government to take action to reduce air pollution. They are also asking for more public health education on the dangers of breathing in toxic air. If successful, the court could force the government to introduce stricter laws on air quality. In the past few years, a number of legal cases brought forward by environmental groups have successfully led to nitrogen dioxide level reductions in large cities.

Air pollution – a silent killer

According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is the greatest environmental health risk in Europe. Responsible for a large proportion of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, it causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year. In the EU, 96% of urban citizens are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution, and 400,000 people die prematurely as a result. You can use the EEA’s city air quality viewer to find out how clean the air is where you live.

Currently, the EU is amending its Ambient Air Quality Directive, which sets the upper pollution thresholds for member states. However, even when the law is reformed, countries won’t have to comply with new limits for several years until the implementation process is completed. Years in which millions of people, including children, will have to to breathe in deadly pollutants.

What’s needed here is simple – alignment of national air quality laws with the science laid out by the world’s leading experts. This is the bare minimum our leaders should be doing to protect people.

Irmina Kotiuk
Human rights lawyer, ClientEarth

This issue isn’t something that we should have to live with. In 2020, as travel largely ground to a halt, humanity got a taste of a world with cleaner air. Cutting air pollution is possible, but it will require us to cut our reliance on fossil fuels. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to do this. To alleviate another global health crisis, we should do the same now. After all, there is no vaccine against air pollution.

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