Catalan High Court overturns Barcelona's low-emission zone

The ruling, which can be appealed, alleges that the City Council has not provided sufficient reports to justify rolling out the measure

3 min
Sign alerting you that you are entering a low emission zone in Barcelona (ZBE) and need an environmental badge

BarcelonaCatalonia's High Court has annulled Barcelona's low emission zone (ZBE) "for lack of reports" supporting some of the restrictions and an excessive "geographical scope of implementation" and of affected vehicles. According to the court, the regulation does not sufficiently analyse the alternatives or the economic, social and market and competition consequences these measures may have, nor does it sufficiently assess the costs and benefits that rolling out the project imply for the population and the administration itself. "The need for municipal intervention to improve air quality is not in any way questioned, but rather whether the limiting measures adopted are proportionate in this case," the court rules. The judgment, motivated by appeals filed by several associations, is not final and the municipal government can lodge an appeal.

The low-emission zone has been in place in Barcelona since January 1, 2020 and bans access to the city and part of the bordering municipalities to the most polluting vehicles. When the measure was rolled out, goods vehicles were given a two-year moratorium.

Through the resolution of six appeals, the court now highlights that the low emission zone introduces "important limitations to mobility immediately and in the short term that affect tens of thousands of vehicles", and considers that the City Council had not offered an alternative to the population that wants to travel in the areas included in this zone other than having to buy a new car, without taking into account their economic capacity. "The ordinance has a special impact on citizens with a more limited economic capacity to renew their vehicle, such as families with children or large families", the High Court states.

The Court adds that the territorial scope of the low emission zone is excessive and is not justified on the basis of the pollution data provided by the Council – the main objective of the measure is to reduce the environmental impact of traffic – as it considers that they are "outdated" and "inaccurate" because they date from a 2015 report and the most recent data were taken in 2013. "The latest annual pollution data are from 2017," the Court states, which adds, "The pollution situation in Barcelona at the time of the enactment of the Ordinance presented a downward trend, as stated in the 2017 emissions inventory, data which are confirmed in 2018, but which are not considered in the preparatory documentation."

Specifically, the Court stresses that maximum values of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were exceeded continuously in two traffic measurement stations (Eixample and Gràcia), but not in the rest (eight) of the stations in Barcelona. And following these data, the sentence continues, "zoning by rings" would not support the uniform application of "identical limiting measures" in the city and inside the ring roads.

Economic impact

The magistrates also claim that in the processing of the ordinance no type of alternative or "measure with less restrictive content" to the decision to prohibit circulation on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the low emission zone was proposed. Moreover, they say, the analysis made by the Barcelona government of the economic and social consequences for the population is "very concise" and does not allow to weigh up the costs enough, despite the fact that the measure could have a "discriminatory effect on residents".

From the social point of view, the resolution alleges that the reports only associate a lower vehicle use with a greater benefit derived from the improvement of air quality, but the individual limitation of mobility affects groups that do not have the economic resources to renew their vehicle especially, such as large families and more vulnerable citizens.

The Court also believes the City Council did not give sufficient consideration to the economic repercussions that the measure may have for the Barcelona City Council itself, for example in the collection of the municipal vehicle circulation tax. In addition, the High Court pointed out another problem: the intensity and immediacy of the measures produced an effect on competition and the market, particularly in the transport sector. The magistrates defend that the low emission zone can mean people are not able to use their vehicle to work given the extent of the prohibitive measures.

The judicial setback comes just three days after the Catalan Government announced that it intended to extend low-emission zones to all municipalities with over 20,000 inhabitants by 2025. The Spanish climate change law, in fact, provides for the creation of these areas in all cities with over 50,000 inhabitants, a measure that the Generalitat announced it wanted to better and to smaller towns in order to improve pollution indicators linked to road traffic.