June 29, 2019 / 7:15 PM / 2 months ago

Protest in Madrid as conservatives suspend ban on most polluting cars

MADRID (Reuters) - Thousands protested in Madrid on Saturday against the suspension of curbs on polluting cars by the new conservative city hall, raising fears that environmental rollbacks seen in the United States may be spreading to Europe.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Madrid's new conservative People's Party (PP) municipal government plans to suspend some anti-car emissions policies in the city center, Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Medina

The first reversal of environmental policies by a major European city comes despite soaring global environmental concerns and is a fresh sign of growing divisions in Spain after a series of inconclusive elections in April and May.

Last November Madrid’s then far-left government banned most petrol and diesel cars from its centre to tackle high levels of nitrogen dioxide. The policy was known as “Madrid central” and it was intended to bring Madrid into line with EU clean air rules which it had been violating since 2010.

“Yes we can, I do want Madrid central,” chanted the protesters. Some were holding banners that read “I want to breathe free” and “We aspire to have a Madrid without smoke”.

“We have to save (the planet) starting at the local and small level, the first thing is Madrid’s centre,” said Laura Martin, a 39-year-old actress.

She added that she was concerned that the new Madrid government might have some similar ideas to U.S. President Donald Trump’s rollback of environmental policies, such as weakening rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants and standards on harmful gas emissions from cars and trucks.

People of all ages rallied despite a scorching heatwave in Spain and most of Europe, which had already forced the city of Paris to ban more than half of all registered cars from its roads earlier this week because the heat worsens pollution.

Various European cities including Paris, Hamburg, Amsterdam, London and Oslo have started to penalise or ban older polluting cars as they seek to phase out all fossil fuel cars in the coming decade.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace say the “Madrid central” measure slashed air pollution levels from car emissions in the centre to record lows.

The new city hall run by the conservative People’s Party suspended fines on cars entering the currently restricted area of around five sq km (two sq miles) from July 1, while it reviews the plan to make it “compatible with citizens’ mobility needs”.

“As far as I know at the European level there’s no precedent in ending a car traffic restriction,” said Lara Lazaro, researcher of the Real Instituto Elcano.

The European Commision has warned Spain that it would face sanctions and a possible lawsuit if it fails to meet air quality standards in its largest cities of Madrid and Barcelona.

Reporting by Elena Rodriguez, writing by Andrei Khalip and Joan Faus; Editing by Stephen Powell

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