Commission gears up against air polluters, sends six countries to court

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The Commission also referred France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to the Court of Justice of the European Union for failure to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible.

Other nations including France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania - which had all previously been given a final warning - have also been referred to court for breaching pollution levels.

"The member states referred to the Court today have received sufficient "last chances" over the last decade to improve the situation", Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella, explained.

The six are accused of failing to tackle nitrogen dioxide levels.

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Reacting to the announcement, ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: "We are glad that, at last, the Commission is taking serious steps to fight air pollution before the Court of Justice".

The European court of justice (ECJ) has the power to impose multimillion euro fines if the countries do not address the problem swiftly.

Three "pillars" of air quality improvement have been pegged by the Commission: setting out air quality standards, targets for reducing emissions and emissions standards for pollution sources. But Vella also admitted that "legal action alone will not solve the problem".

The EU estimates that air pollution costs the bloc 20 billion euros ($24.7 billion) a year in health costs, but says this could be reduced if member states comply with agreed emissions limits.

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It is unclear when the ECJ's jurisdiction over the UK's environmental concerns will end following Brexit. Of the measurements cited in the referral, the UK's recorded NOx concentrations of 102µg/m3 in London were the highest of the offending countries. The UN's special rapporteur on pollution said in September that the United Kingdom government was "flouting" its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens.

He said the member states being taken to court had been repeatedly warned to clean up pollution as soon as possible. The Commission should have made no exceptions and referred them all.

Also on Thursday, in the continuing fall-out from the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal, the European commission issued renewed warnings to the UK, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg over their alleged failure to "have effective and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter auto manufacturers from breaking the law". "Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing".

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