Why are experts in shock with the ruling against Barcelona's LEZ?

They believe the measure could be improved but that courts have overlooked its health benefits

5 min
Signposting of the low emission zone to the Ronda Litoral of Barcelona

BarcelonaCatalonia's High Court ruling against Barcelona's low-emissions zone (LEZ) have caused surprise and incomprehension, and not only in the administration, which is already working on an appeal. Since hundreds of cities across Europe have implemented similar measures to combat pollution, some a decade before the Catalan capital, how is it possible that a court decision urges the measure to be overturned and not only, in any case, to amend some of its parts? This is what air quality experts, scientists and citizens' organisations consulted by ARA had to say, going over main points of a resolution which they criticise for overlooking the right to health and containing "technical errors".

A "worrying" background

The High Court decision is "very bad news" that can confuse citizens, warns CSIC researcher and air quality expert Xavier Querol. "It may seem that it is nonsense or that everything is badly done," he laments, adding that if something has been done wrong in Barcelona and the metropolitan area it is "the tardiness" in comparison with other cities in Europe that have applied similar measures restricting polluting traffic for years. Querol believes the argumentation in the sentence ignores "technical criteria" and is surprised by the complete repeal of the measure, instead of partial modifications of the sections the court finds discriminatory.

The evaluation of the cost to health of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter is not sufficiently taken into account in the judges' reasoning, adds José María Baldasano, professor of environmental engineering at the UPC, who sees a "worrying ideological undercurrent" in the ruling, with a "much deeper" dimension than the mere ("and serious", he stresses) annulment of the restriction in Barcelona.

Too large an area?

One of the issues the court looked at was the geographical scope of the LEZ, which covers 95 square kilometres. The size, however, falls within the European average and is close, for example, to that of Berlin (88 km2). The detail in which Barcelona is nothing like Germany, says Querol, is in the scope of the measure. In 2010, he points out, a low-emission zone was set up in 35 German cities, affecting 35% of cars then on the roads. In the case of Barcelona, the measure initially affected 3% of cars and now, once the various moratoriums have concluded, the impact is 7%, according to the scientist. "Therefore, you have to reach a large area for there to be any effect," he concludes.

When judges argue that pollution levels above the limits are only seen in some specific stations, such as the one in Gràcia or the Eixample, they are making a mistake in the interpretation of how the stations are located and what information they provide, adds environmental consultant and coordinator of the Contaminación.Barcelona website, Miquel Ortega. "The stations are installed in different kinds of street and, therefore, the information they give also tells us what degree of pollution we have to expect in other parts of the city that have similar characteristics and traffic," he explains.

Discrimination against low incomes

Surely one of the main questions raised by the High Court is the impact on inequality of a measure that even entities such as the Platform for Air Quality have criticised for being "too much directed" to encourage the replacement of old and polluting cars by newer ones. Nevertheless, Ortega warns that making assertions about the impact on low incomes "is more complicated than it seems".

Looking at Barcelona's municipal data, it can be seen that the concentration of vehicles per inhabitant is higher in high-income neighbourhoods (possibly due to the fact that more families have more than one vehicle), while in lower-income neighbourhoods, despite having fewer vehicles, the proportion of older cars is higher and there are, therefore, more cars which are potentially affected, the expert acknowledges. However, he also points to other factors to be taken into account, such as the fact that, in terms of total population, the correlation is not so clear, because among people with lower incomes there is also a higher proportion who do not own a car.

Map: Number of high-polluting banned cars per 100 inhabitants
Mapa interactiu: Auri Garcia

"The judges' equation does not include those most affected by pollution, who are usually those who do not own a vehicle, such as children and the elderly," Ortega adds, who points out that the discussion is more complicated.

Querol points out that, in any case, the measures could have been deployed differently to correct these inequalities, as other cities have done. "In Milan, for example, owners with lower incomes and an high-polluting car are allowed an annual mileage within the protected area, and a device controls when they have exceeded it," he cites as an example. He also points out that direct aid could also be based on income: "Surely, a family with high purchasing power does not need a subsidy to change their car, but a low-income one does. It is also more important to reduce hauliers' emissions, who emit for ten hours a day".

Right to mobility

Baldasano stresses that the right to mobility – another debate touched on by the ruling – is not eliminated by the low-emission zone, but only limited for high-polluting vehicles. The professor defends that the labels that classify vehicles according to their emissions are based on the Euro emission standards and, therefore, "there is a technological criterion behind" it.

Ortega adds that if the vehicle's age was the criterion there would be no differences (as there are) between the gasoline combustion vehicles and diesels. Even so, he believes that the criterion of these badges could be "polished". Likewise, Baldasano believes labels are a correct scale to make "a first classification", although he also sees room for improvement. In addition, he regrets that the implementation of the restriction for vehicles with yellow labels has "slowed down", a measure that right now has no specific timetable.

Why is no action being taken on port pollution?

The pollution generated by the port of Barcelona has to be fought, experts stress, but the problem of emissions in the port cannot be mixed with the problem that the LEZ seeks to combat, which is to eliminate air pollutants that have been shown to be dangerous to health, such as NO2, 70% of which originates in traffic.

"The LEZ is aimed at people's health and the pollutants that we know stay in our lungs," insists Ortega. The port, he adds, is a major emitter of sulfur oxides (SO2), but, on the other hand, its contribution to air pollutants that have to do with the ZBE is 10%. "The low emission zone wants to eliminate carcinogenic material from the air – the WHO declared diesel soot carcinogenic in 2012 – because poison, even in small doses, does harm," Xavier Querol adds.

And now what?

The City Council and the Generalitat's offices are working on appeals to save the LEZ, as many other municipalities across the country prepare to deploy similar restrictions in the coming years. The Generalitat has announced that it wants low-emission zones in virtually all towns with over 20,000 inhabitants by 2025, and admits that it is necessary to "legally strengthen the measure" and that the Air Quality Board, which meets this Monday for the first time, will be working to this effect.

Towns and cities that had already launched processes to create LEZs are following developments closely. Barcelona's LEZ is not the only that was taken to court: the same happened in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Cornellà de Llobregat, Esplugues de Llobregat and Sant Adrià de Besòs. Rulings on these cases are expected shortly. Sant Cugat del Vallès is the only place where no lawsuit was filed against the LEZ.

Reus, which is rolling out its own project, admits that the High Court decision is helping them to see what they can improve "to avoid complications". In Sabadell, where the process has barely started, socialist mayor Marta Farrés admits that the ruling is right in the fact that more account should be taken of those affected: "We have to prevent the LEZs from being a new reason for inequality".

For its part, Girona halted its LEZ on Monday, upon learning of the ruling against Barcelona's. The City Council decided to stop the tender for the security cameras that were to control its low emission zone. The council then explained that the specifications had to be ready initially in April, but that the ruling forced them to review the whole project, a fact that would postpone proceedings for at least a few months, municipal sources explained.