EU squashes cities’ bid to curb emissions

19 January 2022

The EU Court of Justice has rejected a bid by three European cities to curb car emissions, overturning an earlier decision by arguing the cities’ challenges were ‘inadmissible.’ The complaint was brought forward by Brussels, Madrid, and Paris – which experience dangerously high levels of air pollution and have accused the European Commission of setting car emissions limits for nitrogen oxides too high.

The case centres on the Commission’s introduction of a procedure for testing the real-driving emissions (RDE) of light passenger and commercial vehicles. This was set up to better reflect the emissions measured on the road following the Dieselgate scandal that saw carmakers, most notably Volkswagen, cheat emissions tests. The roll-out of RDE tests were part of the EU’s efforts to ensure future emissions standards are met in real-driving conditions, not just in laboratories. But this has not come without criticism.

Health risks

The trio of cities argued that the set limits were higher than those of the Euro 6 standard that applies to light vehicles registered since 2015. Their complaint arrived after the Commission bent to industry pressure in 2016, allowing vehicles to break limits during RDE tests.

After initially setting the limit at 80 milligrams of nitrogen oxide per kilometre, the Commission raised that cap to 168 milligrams per kilometre until 2020. Manufacturers had said that measuring emissions in real-world conditions was difficult, thus requiring more time to develop accurate testing methods.

However, the capital cities argued that this would prevent them from regulating the circulation of vehicles to reduce air pollution, which the European Environmental Agency sees as the biggest environmental health risk in Europe. Car emissions are the main sources of nitrogen dioxide, causing respiratory problems, including lung disease and cancer.

‘This decision leaves in place the licence to pollute awarded to carmakers behind closed doors in 2016,’ said Fabian Sperka, vehicle policy manager at the NGO Transport & Environment. ‘Lawmakers must resist any watering down of the plans for a tougher Euro 7 air-pollution standard which will affect Europe’s air quality for a generation.’


The recent ruling by the European Court of Justice overturns a 2018 decision by the European General Court, the EU’s second-highest court, which had backed the cities. It found that policymakers had set excessively high emissions limits, with a 2021 opinion from an advocate general also siding with the complainants.

This initial ruling prompted an appeal by Germany, Hungary, and the Commission, with the latest verdict by the Court of Justice now delivering a blow to the cities.

‘The applicants […] contrary to what they claim, cannot be regarded as being directly concerned by the regulation at issue,’ the ruling states. ‘Consequently, the actions for annulment brought by the city of Paris, the city of Brussels and the municipality of Madrid must be dismissed as inadmissible.’

The judges noted that the complainants do not hold powers in relation to vehicle-type approval. ‘The Court points out that the adoption of legislation limiting the local circulation of certain vehicles for the purposes of protecting the environment is not liable to infringe the prohibition imposed by the contested regulation, with the result that it cannot have a direct effect on any action for failure to fulfil obligations,’ the judges found. They added that the cities could still regulate the circulation of vehicles to protect the environment without infringing EU law.