Brussels calls on Madrid, Barcelona to do more to combat air pollution

In the wake of the suspension of the Madrid Central low-emissions area, the European Commission has warned Spain that it is not doing enough to combat the “serious” situation

One of the entrances to the Madrid Central low-emissions zone in the Spanish capital.
One of the entrances to the Madrid Central low-emissions zone in the Spanish capital.JULIÁN ROJAS

The European Commission has warned Spain it may face disciplinary action if it does not introduce tougher measures to reduce air pollution. According to sources from the European Union, environmental inspectors are keeping Spain “in the waiting room” while they decide whether to take the country to the EU Court of Justice over its failure to meet EU pollution thresholds.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry for Ecological Transition sent Brussels a report on air quality in Spain in 2018. In this document, which must be published every year, the government admitted that Madrid and the metropolitan area of Barcelona continued to exceed the limits on nitrogen dioxide.

In response, the head of the EU Commission’s environment department, Karmenu Vella, has sent the Spanish government a letter warning that the data from Spain’s monitoring stations show that pollution is not falling at an adequate rate, and that additional measures are needed to address the “serious” situation.

Brussels warns that the current initiatives in Spain will not be enough to meet the legal limits on pollution

The letter from the EU Commission comes at a critical time for Spain, with the debate over how to tackle pollution more heated than ever. The region of Catalonia has only just deactivated warnings over the latest episode of high pollution. And Barcelona City Hall is planning to introduce a low-emissions zone in the metropolitan area of the city in just over five months. Under the plan, polluting vehicles will be banned from entering the area, which will cover 95 square kilometers spanning five municipalities.

Meanwhile in Madrid, the new local council is pushing to suspend the low-emissions scheme Madrid Central, which was introduced under former Mayor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Más Madrid party, to reduce air pollution. The new mayor of the Spanish capital, José Luis Martínez-Almeida of the conservative Popular Party (PP), announced a temporary freeze on fines for vehicles that violated the anti-pollution plan, despite criticism from residents and green groups. A body known as the Platform in Defense of Madrid Central, which is made up of more than 80 organizations, has convinced a Madrid judge to overturn the decision and for now the scheme is still in place.

Barcelona City Hall is planning to introduce a low-emissions zone in just over five months

The letter from the European Commission warns Spain that all levels of government – national, regional and local – “must mobilize and contribute” with “measures” to improve air quality. It also states that, according to their team’s assessment, the current initiatives in the country will not be enough to meet the legal limits on pollution. Although the letter does not specifically mention Madrid or Barcelona, it does refer to Spain’s failure to meet the threshold for nitrogen dioxide, a problem that is concentrated in Madrid and the Barcelona metropolitan area.

Spain could face action if measures are not taken to improve air quality. A year ago, Spain was spared legal action by the European Commission before the EU Court of Justice thanks in large part to the Madrid Central plan. At that point, the Spanish capital had been exceeding European pollution thresholds for nearly a decade. According to EU sources, the proceedings against Spain, triggered by high levels of nitrogen oxides in Madrid and Barcelona, were never fully closed. Spain was warned it could be sanctioned (in 2018, the country was fined €12 million by the European Commission for failing to treat urban waste water) if it did not meet pollution thresholds by 2020.

English version by Melissa Kitson.


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