Air pollution in Madrid’s low-emission zone rises back to pre-fine levels

Environmental group Ecologists in Action says that nitrogen dioxide emissions increased after the right-wing local government tried to suspend Madrid Central

Miguel Ángel Medina
An entrance to the Madrid Central low-emissions zone.
An entrance to the Madrid Central low-emissions zone.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

Nitrogen dioxide levels in the low-emissions zone Madrid Central rose over July and August, according to a new report by environmental group Ecologists in Action that is based on local data.

The report found that emissions at the Plaza del Carmen monitoring center, the only one located within Madrid Central, were back to where they were in March, before the anti-pollution scheme began fining vehicles that violated the low-emissions area.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions rose from 22 micrograms in April to 35 micrograms in July

The Plaza del Carmen monitoring station has historically recorded some of the worst pollution levels of the network, but a drop was recorded after Madrid Central came into action and drivers were fined for entering the zone without the proper permission.

Madrid Central, which made 4.7 square kilometers of the city center off-limits to traffic, except for local residents and public transportation, was introduced under the former leftist administration of Mayor Manuela Carmena at the end of 2018. But when the current mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida from the right-wing Popular Party (PP), took office in June, he decided to suspend fines for violating drivers.

This decision was overturned four days later by a Madrid court that ruled that Madrid Central was needed to stop pollution from rising “without any kind of control.” The suspension was blocked in another two court rulings, and on August 29, Almeida announced he would not be appealing the decision.

But while fines were suspended for just a few days, Ecologists in Action argue the confusion over the local government’s position on Madrid Central has led to a rise in pollution.

“The effectiveness of Madrid Central fell in the past two months, coinciding with a change from a very clear situation, with fines, to a City Hall that came into office saying it wanted to get rid of Madrid Central. This has generated a situation of uncertainty,” said Juan Bárcena, from Ecologists in Action.

The air pollution monitoring network, which has 24 stations across the Spanish capital, measures the level of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide. The records vary according to the weather conditions (pollution is worse if there is no rain) and the intensity of traffic (more cars, more pollution).

In January, the Plaza del Carmen monitoring station recorded an average of 55 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic meter of air – far above the 40 micrograms considered harmful by the World Health Organization. But when the Madrid Central fines were rolled out in April, that monthly figure dropped to 22 micrograms – five points below the network average. The following month, air pollution in Madrid dropped to “historic lows,” according to Ecologists in Action.

The effectiveness of Madrid Central fell in the past two months Ecologists in Action

But this downward trend was reversed after Almeida tried to suspend Madrid Central. Nitrogen oxide levels in the center of the city were up to 35 micrograms in July, and to 33 micrograms in August.

“The Plaza del Carmen monitoring station went from being one of the stations with the lowest levels of nitrogen dioxide of all the network, to one of the worst in the last two months,” according to the report.

Almeida has called on the environmental group to “keep debate outside of political inclination.” After campaigning to get rid of Madrid Central, the coalition government between the PP and Ciudadanos, which took power thanks to the support of the far-right Vox, now boasts about how many drivers it has fined for violating the anti-pollution plan.

Fines for entering Madrid Central without authorization soared from 13,361 in May – when municipal elections were held – to 79,908 in June, according to local registers. That is a sixfold rise, which Almeida said is proof that his predecessor Manuela Carmena “and her team did not believe in Madrid Central.”

In September, Almeida is expected to announce a new plan to combat air pollution, but has not provided any details yet on what it may involve.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS