“Reducing pollution prevents deaths”: outrage over the cancellation of the Low Emissions Zone in Barcelona

The sentence of the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) that annuls the Low Emissions Zone (ZBE) of Barcelona has taken by surprise and has outraged Administrations —the City Council and the Generalitat—, environmental organizations and in defense of public transport and, also, to health institutions and professionals, who are concerned about the serious consequences for public health caused by high air pollution from the city. On the contrary, the sentence, which is not final, has been celebrated by organizations linked to the motor sector.

Since it began to be applied —in January 2020—, the oldest and most polluting vehicles have been prohibited from circulating through the ZBE —fundamentally inside the city, while it was allowed on the roads that cross it, such as the ring roads—.

The restriction did not apply on weekends or at night. According to the TSJC, the measure had deficiencies in its preparation, due to the lack of decisive reports and for being excessive in the geographical scope of application and in the type of cars excluded. The consistory has proclaimed that the ordinance will continue to apply and has announced that it will appeal the judicial decision.

Broadly speaking, the rejection of the judicial decision is based on the fact that it contravenes community legislation, that it is not in line with the regulations that are being adopted to face the climate emergency and, in addition, “attacks” the new “common sense ” citizen who claims to prioritize the “right to health” and, therefore, guarantee “clean air” for people. Studies put the number of premature deaths in Barcelona at a thousand as a result of air pollution, one of the main reasons that caused the approval of the ZBE.

A decision “difficult to understand”

While waiting to verify the evolution of the issue, the consulted entities consider “very worrying as a society” that steps are taken back in an area where they directly demand more ambitious measures, which allow a significant reduction in private traffic to the city and , obviously, improve the quality of the air more significantly.

Pi, spokesperson for Promoció del Transport Públic: “The ruling goes against other ongoing legal proceedings”

“It is very bad news and it is very difficult to understand why a basic measure to improve air quality that has been implemented in 280 European cities is canceled,” he says. Xavier Querola researcher at the Institute for Environmental Diagnosis and Air Studies —integrated into the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC)—, and an expert in atmospheric pollution.

“The first reaction to the sentence was astonishment, because it goes against other ongoing judicial processes,” he says. Daniel Pi, spokesperson for the association for the Promotion of Public Transport (PTP). In fact, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) must decide in the coming months whether to sanction the Spanish State at the request of the European Commission precisely for failing to comply with the community directive on air quality, as a consequence of excess nitrogen dioxide —which is linked to the automotive industry—.

“We see a contradiction,” adds Pi, who recalls that according to the Spanish Climate Change Law —approved last year— all cities in the State with more than 50,000 inhabitants will have to have a ZBE from 2023. In the Catalan case Last week, the Generalitat and city councils announced that the low-emissions zone will be extended to all towns with more than 20,000 residents. Pi also points out the “conservative” bias of the judiciary, which in matters of this type clearly lags behind social evolution. Waiting to see how the European Commission reacts to the sentence, the researcher Xavier Querol considers that decisions such as those of the TSJC “make it very difficult to work to improve air quality” and, underlines, that “reducing pollution prevents deaths “.

Responds “to the interests of the motor lobby”

Maria Garcia, responsible for the air pollution area of ​​Ecologists in Action and one of the spokespersons for the Platform for the Quality of the Air, stresses that “the Court gets into the field of political assessments and makes considerations that are not supported”. In this sense, she emphasizes that the main source of pollution in Barcelona “are the vehicles, not the port, as the sentence says” and adds that “it takes as its own some of the arguments of the resources, which are linked to interests of the motor lobby, which are not supported at a technical level”. In fact, Xavier Querol recalls that traffic generates “between 60% and 70% of nitrogen dioxide pollution —which is why we are subject to sanctions—, while the port accounts for around 10%”.

The court ruling repeatedly cites reports from the TACC, a private company that represents the main lobby

Among others, the appeals against the ZBE were presented by the Platform for those affected by traffic restrictions, the Association of Large Families of Catalonia and the unions of vehicle repair shops and carriers, while the court ruling cites reports on several occasions of the RACC, a private company that represents the main motor lobby in our country and that in recent years has opposed any measure aimed at reducing private traffic, be it the ZBE, the superilles or the pacification of streets.

For García, possibly the sentence “at the legal level has no course”, but what it would be about is to focus the debate on “whether the low emissions zone works or not” to reduce air pollution.

On this issue, the platform emphasizes that a LEZ model like the current one fundamentally what it does is “incentivize the acceleration in the renewal of private vehicles”, which does not necessarily imply a reduction in the fleet of cars that usually circulates. Querol clarifies that, although this is true, it is also true that this substitution for newer —and cleaner— cars does reduce air pollution. García adds that the future European directive on air quality will include “much stricter” levels, both in relation to the levels of nitrogen dioxide and that of suspended particles (PM), for which more demanding measures will be necessary to adapt to her.

Bet on an urban toll

The Platform for the Quality of the Air is directly committed to the introduction of an urban toll, a proposal that the PTP also welcomes. “It is not fair to discriminate based on who can buy a vehicle and, furthermore, changing cars has a great impact at the level of ecological footprintas a consequence of the environmental impact associated with manufacturing,” says García. For this reason, the environmental activist advocates moving towards an effective 30% reduction in the volume of vehicles that circulates through Barcelona and defends the need for an urban toll “that affects everyone”.

Revenues should be used to promote public transport and active mobility

However, it should have exceptions and, for example, “be free for vehicles with three or more occupants, that it does not affect people with reduced mobility or that it does not apply to those who use the vehicle to work and prove low income.” The revenue should be used to promote public transport and active mobility.

Daniel Pi (PTP) shares that it is necessary to apply “much clearer measures that tend to reduce the car park” and adds that this, by rebound, would also mean “an improvement in public transport” because “with less private traffic, speed would improve of bus circulation. In this process of reducing private vehicles on the street, Pi reflects that the ZBE was a step that “we were not enthusiastic about, but at least we were not doing badly”. Now, “if it goes backwards, it would be worrying as a society.”

For his part, Xavier Querol welcomes an urban toll, but details that it is perfectly compatible with a ZBE and that, in fact, the usual model is to combine both measures. In addition, the CSIC researcher recalls that Barcelona had not been, much less, a pioneer on the continent when it came to applying a low-emissions zone, to the point that some 280 European cities currently have them and that Germany, for example, began to apply such restrictions in 2010.

The scientist adds that in this country diesel vehicles —the most polluting and the most harmful to health, basically those manufactured before 2019— can no longer circulate if they are registered before 2015, while in Barcelona the ban hardly affects the previous ones to 2006. “It is not a very strict measure or one that affects a very high proportion of vehicles,” emphasizes Querol, who also states that if a restriction is chosen that affects only a small part of the car park, the ZBE must have a certain extension —between 80 and 100 km2— in order to be effective.

Daniel Pi also recalls that, according to the latest survey on the subject, more than half of Barcelonans ask for “stricter measures” to reduce air pollution, which is already perceived as a serious public health problem, and refutes the argument of the TSJC ruling that those affected by the implementation of the ZBE are low-income citizens: “50% of the population does not have access to a vehicle, either because they do not have a license, because of age or because they do not can afford it. This is the most economically disadvantaged sector and the one that would be most harmed by the annulment of a measure”, since, from the outset, their “right to health” would be violated.

pollution reduction

Approved in December 2019, the fines provided for in the ZBE ordinance were to begin to be applied as of April 2020, but they were not finally applied until September of that year, as a consequence of the reduction in traffic generated by mobility restrictions. for the pandemic.
According to the balance presented last week by Barcelona City Council, the ZBE caused the reduction of some 609,000 polluting journeys in 2021. In addition, last year 70,000 fines were imposed for non-compliance with the regulations. Data from pollution stations show that levels of the main indicator of pollution – nitrogen dioxide – have dropped by 11% in the city.

Despite the judicial setback, it seems clear that the traffic restrictive measures will go further, both due to increased environmental awareness and, above all, due to the need to comply with community legislation. However, each step forward will probably be accompanied by legal proceedings as a result of the resources of a sector, the motor sector, which sees the primacy of the private vehicle in private space being questioned. In a city like Barcelona, more than 60% of public space is currently dedicated to private vehicles and, in fact, the bulk of contemporary cities have been designed putting cars at the center, a model that is beginning to be questioned in order to put people, and their health, at the center.


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