Major German cities are facing a wave of lawsuits for not giving their citizens air clean enough to breathe. Berlin could become the first city to be legally forced to introduce measures to improve air quality.
The German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) began a planned string of legal action on Monday by supporting lawsuits from three Berlin citizens. Similar suits would follow in Munich, Stuttgart and other major cities, DUH said.
The charges are a result of the EU's new clean air laws, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2005. These place limits on the air levels of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants, such as soot particles emitted by diesel vehicles. German cities and municipalities have to control their air quality and take countermeasures if the toxic levels are too high.
DUH director Jürgen Resch criticized that the cities had long been aware of the planned changes and had simply disregarded the directive. "The citizens concerned are taking legal action out of pure self-defense," Resch told journalists in Berlin.
Banning diesel vehicles
In large cities like Berlin, sticking to the new limits is a challenge. They stipulate that so-called particulate matter, the concentration of fine dust in the air, cannot exceed 50 micrograms per cubic meter on more than 35 days of the year. These pollutants have been found to cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Berlin has exceeded these levels by far in previous years.
Resch criticized that municipalities, state and federal governments had been inactive for years in battling these pollutants. Yet the EU directive has been known since 1999. He said DUH supported lawsuits in order to push through measures to clean up the air, such as driving bans for diesel vehicles without particle filters.
"We call on the cities to quickly take action to ban diesel vehicles without a filter from the cities and therefore contribute to a drastic reduction in the levels of fine dust in the air," said Resch.
However, Federal Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin said he thinks it would be more effective to tackle the problem at its source.
"I think it would be better to ensure that we find a replacement for old cars and a re-fitting of diesel vehicles very quickly in order to really reduce the levels of fine dust," said Trittin.
An unsuitable action plan for cleaner air
The three plaintiffs in the Berlin case live on the heavily-traveled Frankfurter Allee in the city's Friedrichshain district. According to the Federal Environmental Agency, this street already surpassed the maximum pollutant levels on 20 days this year. The plaintiffs' attorney, Fabian Löwenberg, said the injunction should force the municipality to take immediate measures.
"The clean air and action plan does not provide for a reduction in fine dust levels in Berlin's city center until 2008," said Löwenberg. "But it foregoes everything that would be suitable to reduce them immediately."
"The clean air and action plan for Berlin in its current form is completely unsuitable to protect people's health in the coming years," he added.
A toll for German cities?
According to DUH, the most effective measure to reduce fine dust particles in the short-term is a driving ban, for example for cars without diesel soot filters. Resch referred to other EU countries, such as Italy, that had introduced rigid measures like car-free days in order to meet the EU stipulations.
Another possibility would be to introduce city tolls, such as those implemented in London. The German traffic association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD) said city tolls are a possibility to make the air in German cities cleaner.
"But the municipalities have to decide for themselves if this would catch on in their city," said VCD transport spokesman Gerd Lottsiepen. "It could be more effective if there were defined areas in which dirty vehicles, that is, those without a filter, could simply not travel."
However, German retailers strongly oppose such bans. "You can't oust cars out of the city centers," said Hubertus Pellengahr, spokesman of the German Retailers' Association HDE. "This will lead to the demise of retail stores and, subsequently, the city."
He said a lively retail industry was crucial for versatile and attractive city centers.