Top EU Court rules against Spain for air pollution in Madrid and Barcelona

Pollution and clouds are seen over the sky of Barcelona, Spain, July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo

MADRID, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Spain allowed nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution levels to systematically exceed EU limits in Madrid and Barcelona between 2010 and 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday, potentially paving the way for Brussels to seek penalties.

The EU's executive Commision had asked the bloc's top court in 2019 to take action against Spain over its poor air quality in its two biggest cities, arguing it was failing to protect citizens against pollution.

The Commission has not said what penalties it might seek to impose, if any, but under the EU's infringement procedure these can include either a daily payment or a lump sum.

The court found that harmful rates of NO2 in the air had exceeded the limits in areas with a combined population of 7.3 million people, including the two big cities and an industrial area near Barcelona: Valles-Baix Llobregat.

"Spain has failed to ensure that the air quality plans provide for appropriate measures to ensure that the period during which the limit values for NO2 are exceeded is as short as possible, by failing to adopt, since 11 June 2010, appropriate measures to ensure compliance with those limit values," the ruling said.

It said it would now be up to the Commission to take any potential action.

Janet Sanz, the head of Barcelona's environment department, said the city was focused on improving public transport, the use of bicycles and other measures to fight pollution, and central and regional administrations should do their part.

"We've been on track for three years, but we will not stop here," she told reporters.

In Madrid, where a low-emission scheme in a restricted central area has been at the heart of political warfare for years, the conservative mayor accuses his left-wing predecessor's administration of failing to address air pollution. The opposition blames the mayor for rolling-back some anti-pollution measures.

Reporting by Emma Pinedo Editing by Inti Landauro and Peter Graff

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