Diesel summit takeaway: voluntary retrofits will not stop driving bans in cities

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Germany's 'diesel summit' did not meet expectations and barely scratches the surface for limiting air pollution, writes Ugo Taddei. [Wikimedia]

Germany’s diesel summit with car companies this week was a disappointment and does little to cut air pollution, writes Ugo Taddei.

Ugo Taddei is a lawyer working on clean air at the NGO ClientEarth.

Expectations for Wednesday’s (2 August) diesel summit in Berlin were too high. Many considered it the last chance for a discredited German car industry to regain trust. For the diesel engine, the future for which has never looked bleaker, to fight for survival. The outcome of the summit? A pitiful attempt to absolve the diesel industry – and a non-solution to illegal pollution.

Diesel sales have been plummeting–they’re down 13% in Germany year-on-year. The downturn is mainly driven by growing awareness of the health hazards linked to diesel exhaust fumes and by the risk of diesel restrictions being imposed across cities. Carmakers are up in arms; governments are nervous.

The tide has turned on diesel

Carmakers are failing to grasp just how drastically public sentiment has changed in Europe. People are no longer willing to accept bogus reassurances from the car industry that cleaner vehicles are coming, and that we should put up with partial fixes and dangerous air pollution levels in the meantime. More than ever before, citizens and NGOs are standing up to claim their right to clean air and courts are holding reluctant public authorities to their legal duties to protect the public. It is an interesting twist that courts are deciding that diesel bans for the dirtiest diesel vehicles are the only way to bring down air pollution as soon as possible.

The German diesel industry is under massive pressure. Almost two years after the Dieselgate scandal broke, it’s now clear that use of defeat devices is an industrywide issue. In the last few weeks alone, Daimler and Porsche have come under fire over new emissions cheating allegations. German carmakers VW, BMW, Audi and Porsche may have also colluded in a cartel over emission control technologies.

Dieselgate: How and where it all started

German government officials and automakers met in Berlin on Wednesday (2 August) to discuss the future of diesel vehicles, after a nearly two-year saga of scandal spread from Volkswagen to others in the sector. Here’s a reminder of how it all started.

Turning to the courts to fight for clean air

While national governments are dragging their feet and letting the car industry off the hook, courts across Europe are stepping in to protect people’s right to clean air. As part of a European campaign, ClientEarth has taken legal action with German organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) in several German regions, over illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, which in towns and cities is mainly caused by nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from diesel vehicles.

EU limits on pollution levels are set for the protection of human health and have been in place for many years now – but they are still widely exceeded all across the continent. Fortunately, people in the EU have the right to bring legal actions to demand effective measures to bring these levels down. When it comes to NO2, the most effective measures are driving restrictions on highly polluting diesel vehicles.

Undue faith in retrofits

It’s clear that the voluntary software update for 5 million diesel cars announced on Wednesday is far too little, far too late. Too few cars, not enough urgency, too little regard for people’s health.

A Stuttgart judge ruled last week that the legal duty to protect human health from air pollution demands the immediate introduction of localised diesel bans. It followed similar steps in Düsseldorf and Munich, following court action by ClientEarth and DUH. The court clarified that the software retrofits proposed by national authorities would not come close to resolving the issue.

The software update would cut NOx pollution by a maximum of 30% per vehicle. To put that into context: it’s a drop in the ocean, considering that Euro 6 diesel vehicles emit on average almost 700% more NOx than the legal limits.

Carmakers have come up with a voluntary programme, for a limited number of vehicles, with no specified time-limit for completion. It means that people in Germany will continue to be exposed to illegally high emissions from diesel vehicles for the foreseeable future.

Retrofitting has already been deemed an inadequate answer to Germany’s air pollution crisis by the Stuttgart court. It cannot form the backbone of the national response to the problem. The measures announced at the diesel summit clearly do not go far enough to stop our ongoing wave of legal actions for the right to clean air in Germany and across Europe.

National authorities should stop listening to the car industry, roll up their sleeves and take much bolder action to combat the air pollution problem presented by diesel vehicles. They are already years behind schedule.

‘Diesel summit’ analysis: Burning money to make diesel less dirty is not the solution – electric is

Summoning the heads of Germany’s carmakers to a ‘diesel summit’ could never give a positive glow and banish the dark clouds created by cities proposing diesel car bans.