European Union countries that fail to keep air pollution below agreed levels do not have to provide their citizens with financial compensation, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.
The lawsuit was filed by JP, based in the Paris region, which claimed compensation of €21 million from the French state. He claimed that his health had deteriorated since 2003 due to falling air quality in the French capital.
He accused the country’s authorities of failing to comply with their obligations under EU law to keep air pollution below a certain level.
According to an EU directive from 2008, the daily mean of PM10 exposure — small particles that are inhaled into the lungs and can have harmful effects on health — must not exceed 50 micrograms per cubic meter more than 35 times a year. The annual average must not exceed 40 micrograms per cubic meter.
Several EU countries, including France, Poland and Italy, have been brought before the ECJ by the European Commission in recent years for “systematic non-compliance” with these EU rules.
JP’s case was referred to the ECJ by the Versailles Administrative Court.
In a statement published earlier this year, an ECJ adviser sided with the plaintiff and argued that “a violation of EU air quality limits may result in a claim for compensation from the state.”
However, Advocate General Juliane Kokott stated that governments could avoid liability if they could prove that pollution limits would have been exceeded even if an adequate air quality plan had been in place.
However, the ECJ broke with the Council and ruled that “European directives setting standards for air quality as such do not serve to give individuals rights whose violation could give them a right to compensation.”
It states that individuals “must nevertheless be able to obtain from national authorities, possibly by filing a lawsuit before competent courts, to take the measures required by European directives, such as an air quality plan.”
It added that liability can be made “on the basis of domestic law under less restrictive conditions” and that domestic courts may also “issue injunctive relief actions involving penalty payments to ensure that that State fulfils its obligations under EU law.”
The latest figures from the European Environment Agency show that air pollution causes more than 300,000 premature deaths each year — a sharp drop from around one million premature deaths caused by particulate matter pollution in the early 1990s.
According to the report, the number of deaths could be halved if the latest air quality guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) were followed.
In October, the European Commission proposed to update its air purification directive with stricter guidelines in order to bring it more into line with WHO standards and to achieve zero air pollution by 2050 at the latest.
According to the proposal, it is proposed to reduce the annual limit value for the main pollutant — particulate matter (PM2.5) — by more than half, while people suffering health problems from air pollution are entitled to compensation in the event of a breach of EU air quality rules or to be represented by non-governmental organisations through collective claims for compensation.