The establishment of Polluting Low Emission Zones (ZBE) in cities is a fundamental tool in the fight against urban pollution and climate change. However, every time a city takes the step to establish it, they become an inexhaustible source of political pressure and legal resources. This was the case with Madrid Central and now it has been repeated with the ZBE of Barcelona, annulled by a ruling by the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC).
The car is the element that produces the most pollution in cities. Restricting its circulation requires great political courage, because the response to it has a markedly populist character and its sole objective is to knock down any step that could put an end to contamination, but they easily win popular support through demagoguery. The opposition to Madrid Central was based on a simple defense of the “freedom to use the car”, ignoring the terrible health impacts of air pollution. The consequence is that, to date, in Madrid there are no effective measures to restrict private vehicles and the benefits for air quality achieved by the application of Madrid Central have disappeared.
Now, the sentence of the TSJC against the ZBE of Barcelona is a new blow to a measure that is being promoted throughout Europe. There are already 300 European cities that have Low Emission Zones, including London, Berlin, Paris and Oslo. By the way, first of all, we must remember that both Madrid and Barcelona have files open in the European Commission for failing to comply with the legislation on polluting emissions and that the Court of Justice of the EU has already announced sanctions for failing to comply with pollution limits. . What do the judges propose before this? Do nothing?
In the specific case of Barcelona, it is the sixth European city with the highest mortality from air pollution, with more than 1,000 premature deaths per year. Pollution causes 33% of childhood asthma cases and is behind 11% of new lung cancer cases. We are, therefore, facing a real problem, which directly affects people’s health.
When avant-garde measures are taken that open paths, such as the ZBE, the administrations that take the step have to face resources and attacks from the political and business opposition –as is the case of Barcelona–, before ending up being taken over by all sectors. In Barcelona, the ZBE has made it possible to avoid up to 600,000 trips, which must be considered a considerable success.
The Climate Change Law itself approved in Parliament in May 2021 establishes the obligation for cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants to impose their ZBE. There is no other way to deal with the use of private vehicles in cities, and they are a key element in the transition to a new transport model.
The argument used by the judges that the Low Emission Zones can cause “a negative effect on people with less purchasing power”, that they cannot change their car for one with an environmental label, is fallacious. The most economically vulnerable people are those who use public transport the most, so the restrictions can hardly affect them since it is the people with the most purchasing power who use the private vehicle. The truth is that this argument seems more like an excuse to bring down the ZBE than an argument based on technical reports. In fact, the judges make the opposite decision to the one they adopted a year and a half ago, when they refused to provisionally suspend the ZBE by prioritizing the right to health over possible economic consequences.
We encourage the Barcelona City Council to appeal this sentence to continue with the ZBE. This is a necessary measure that benefits citizens, and to which, in any case, the council is bound by the climate change law. In addition, many other cities are watching what happens in Barcelona, a leading city in our country in climate policies, and the approval of new Low Emission Zones will depend on this. We hope that the environmental reason will end up imposing itself, but also the very need to care for public health, above any economic interest.