People power and courts fight first-ever attempt to scrap low-emissions zone

The European Commission, a Spanish court and people power are fighting back to keep Europe’s most successful low-emissions zone operating. According to provisional readings, the ‘Madrid Central’ zone in the Spanish capital has achieved more NO2 reductions than any city in Europe since being introduced last year, but the scheme faces being significantly weakened by a new coalition of right-wing parties governing Madrid.

Europe’s cities have been obliged to meet air quality standards since 2010, but Madrid has regularly violated these standards. Last year, the Commission threatened to refer Spain to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if it did not take immediate action to improve air quality. Spain responded by setting up low-emissions zones (LEZ) in its major cities. One of them is “Madrid Central” where access is restricted to residents and their guests, as well as zero-emission vehicles. 

In its first months, the LEZ has reduced nitrogen dioxide levels by 32% compared with 2018, which is 13% below Madrid’s best years. Yet its future is uncertain following a change of power in the Spanish capital. At last May’s elections, José Luis Martínez-Almeida of the Popular Party came second in votes but managed to form a government supported by the Ciudadanos party and the far-right Vox. Within weeks, the new mayor announced he would suspend the Madrid Central LEZ from 1 July.

The move was met by mass street protests from local residents, and they have now won a victory in a local court. A week after the moratorium on the LEZ came into effect, a judge in a Madrid court suspended the moratorium, saying pollution could not be allowed to rise ‘without any kind of controls’. Two weeks later, the European Commission asked the ECJ to start legal proceedings against Spain because of poor air quality in its cities.

On 30th September, the new mayor Mr Almeida backtracked and proposed instead a weakened anti-pollution plan called Madrid 360.

Jens Müller, air quality manager at PlanUp partner Transport & Environment said: “'Madrid 360' clearly is a step in the wrong direction because it will undermine the achievements of one of Europe's most successful low-emission zones. Allowing more polluting cars into the centre, making parking cheaper and scrapping bike lanes will worsen the air quality in the centre of the Spanish capital compared to the current anti-pollution plan. This is not a ‘360° solution’ for the city, but  a one-sided decision for which public health will pay the price.”

More than 250 EU cities have already introduced low-emission zones. Over 70,000 scientific publications provide strong health and social equity arguments in favour of LEZs. 

Read our analysis of Madrid Central here.