Frédérique Voisin-Demery/Flickr

Twenty cities claim the diesel regulations are so lax that they’ll prevent other efforts to reduce pollution.

A group of 20 European cities including Paris, Madrid, and Copenhagen, are poised to take drastic legal action this week: They plan to sue the European Union. According to comments from Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s cabinet director, reported in E.U. news magazine Euractiv yesterday, the cities will fight new diesel emissions laws that they say are too lax—so lax, they argue, that cities won’t be able to reach their targets for reducing pollution.

Fighting to annul the new laws (formally announced April 26) and gain compensation, the cities are frustrated at what they see as E.U. double standards. On the one hand, the E.U. places pressure on cities to reduce harmful emissions. On the other, its new laws will do little to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from diesel vehicles. This could force cities to achieve emissions goals through bans and congestion charges, when they could have been achieved by more stringent manufacturing regulations instead. This apparent contradiction could lead the cities and E.U. representatives to have their day in court.

The source of the current fight can actually be traced back to the United States—namely the Volkswagen scandal that exposed the German automaker’s falsification of diesel emissions data. After the scandal revealed the regulations’ vulnerabilities, the E.U. began an overhaul that many thought would result in more stringency. This assumption was wrong.

Thanks to intense pressure from the E.U.’s main car manufacturing nations—including Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and all eastern European countries except Poland—the rules actually became laxer. Until 2021, new diesel vehicles will be allowed to emit nitrous oxide at twice the E.U.’s legal limit per kilometer. In 2021, that number will scale back to 50 percent over the legal limit. While some diesel vehicles on E.U. roads currently emit seven times that legal limit, the rules are hardly encouraging news for environmentalists.

Europe’s polluted cities aren’t taking the changes lying down. In April, Hidalgo circulated a petition to fight the rules, drawing more than 127,000 signatories. Those names included the mayors of Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Nicosia, Oslo, Riga, Rotterdam, Sofia, Stockholm, Valetta, Vienna, and Warsaw.

Now that the rules are in place, the cities are poised to try a new approach—one with more teeth. Given the E.U.’s role as the overseer and enforcer of European air quality—a role that gives it the ability to levy fines from cities and countries that fall far short of pollution targets—this should prove highly embarrassing, if nothing else.

So is this a case of plucky, progressive cities standing up to the blundering special interests of that hated grey eminence, the European Union? Eurosceptics might like to paint the conflict that way, but if anything the fight shows the E.U.’s relative weakness. It is apparently powerless in the face of intense lobbying by national governments that want to protect their car manufacturers. Instead, the struggle is now emerging as something different—a conflict between city and national governments, albeit one played out in the European space. National governments still hold most of the power, but this spat could put them in an uncomfortable position.

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