Décision de justice

Air pollution: the Conseil d'État orders the French State to pay two fines of €10 million

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After ordering the French State in 2017 to comply with European standards regarding air quality that have been incorporated into French law, the Conseil d’État today ordered it to pay two new fines of €10 million each for the two periods from July 2021 to January 2022 and January to July 2022. While improvements over time have been observed, nitrogen dioxide pollution limits - compliance with which has been required since 2010 - were still exceeded in several areas in France, particularly in and around the cities of Paris, Lyon and Marseille. To date, the measures taken by the State do not guarantee that air quality is improving in a way that will ensure that pollution limits are met as quickly as possible.

The matter was brought before the Conseil d’État by several environmental organisations, and on 12 July 2017 the Conseil d’État ordered the State to implement plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and micro particle (PM10) pollution in 13 areas in France to comply with the European Directive on air quality. Three years later, finding that the measures taken were inadequate for achieving that target, it demanded the State take action  or face a €10-million fine per half year of delay.

On 4 August 2021, the Conseil d'État ordered the State to pay an initial fine of €10 million for the first half of 2021, after observing that pollution remained excessive in five areas. After analysing new information submitted by the Ministry for the Environment, the Conseil d’État today applied two new fines for the second half of 2021 and the first half of 2022, for a total amount of €20 million.

The situation is improving, but remains poor in several areas

The latest figures show that the situation has improved overall, but that it is still uncertain or poor in four areas. The Grenoble area no longer exceeds the nitrogen dioxide concentration limit, and the Paris area is now below the threshold for PM10 pollution.

However, the situation in the Toulouse area was still fragile in 2021, with average annual nitrogen dioxide pollution just below the limit, but higher than in 2020. In the Paris, Lyon and Aix-Marseille areas, while average annual nitrogen dioxide pollution had dropped overall in 2021 compared to 2019,  it remained above the maximum allowed. 

The measures taken do not ensure an improvement in the shortest possible time

The Conseil d'État noted that the measures taken by the government in the area of transport (grants for the purchase of cleaner vehicles, development of so-called low-pollution mobility systems, deployment of charging stations) and construction (ban on oil or coal-powered boilers) ought to have positive effects on levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the ambient air over the entire country. However, the concrete consequences of these general measures were not specified for the three areas of Paris, Lyon and Aix-Marseille, which continue to exceed the limits.

The Conseil d'État also observed that the development of new low -emission zones (ZFE-m) provided for by the Climate and Resilience Law of August 2021, with the possibility of restricting the use of the most polluting vehicles, could bring about a significant drop in pollution levels. It noted that low emission zones were already in existence in Paris and Lyon and that no new initiatives had been implement in these areas since the Climate law came into effect. The timetable for the implementation of restrictions on the most polluting vehicles had even been put back in Paris. In parallel, the Toulouse low emission zone had only been effective since 1 February 2022 and that of Aix-Marseille since 1 September 2022. And this despite the obligation to set up low emission zones in these areas predating the Climate and Resilience law.

The Conseil d'État finally found that while procedures for revising several atmosphere protection plans (PPAs) were initiated recently or are in the process of being initiated, the goal of compliance with the limits remains very distant and is not supported by any measures that could be considered as ensuring the goal will be achieved as quickly as possible. This despite the fact that the deadline for complying with maximum nitrogen dioxide levels in the ambient air was set at 1 January 2010, according to the European directive.

Two fines of €10 million

In view of both the persistent exceeding of limits and also the improvements observed since the last decision of the Conseil d'État of 4 August 2021, the amount of the six-month fine has not been increased or decreased. For the period from 12 July 2021 to 12 July 2022, it remains set at €10 million for every six months of delay, as provided for by the decision of 10 July 2020, resulting in a total fine of €20 million for the two six-month periods in question.
The fine will once again be distributed between the Friends of the Earth (known in France as Les Amis de la Terre), which first brought the matter before the Conseil d'État in 2017, and several other organisations working against air pollution, on the same grounds as those on which the decision of 4 August 2021 was based, proportionally increasing the sums allocated to organisations that monitor air quality. 

Following this decision, in 2023, the Conseil d'État will review the action taken by the State since the second half of 2022 (July 2022 to January 2023). 


Read the decision n°428409