Europe’s quest to overtake spectre of Dieselgate

The EU wants to slash car CO2 emissions but a debate continues to rage about how ambitious the cuts should be. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Europe’s e-mobility gamechangers.

The 2015 Dieselgate scandal might have been a blessing in disguise, propelling car emissions smack bang into the public spotlight. The EU is now making fresh attempts to bring the transport sector to heel, although there are still plenty of miles to cover.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal plunged the automobile industry into a world of uncertainty and carmakers have struggled to regain public trust ever since.

Already declining sales of new diesel cars in Western Europe fell by nearly 10% between 2015 and 2017, while cities and counties across the continent have announced plans to phase out or outright ban them from roads.

In November last year, the European Commission revealed its proposed update to CO2 limits for light vehicles, including reduction targets for 2025 and 2030.

Although focusing on carbon dioxide emissions rather than nitrogen oxide, which triggered the Dieselgate scandal, the proposal was meant to help the EU executive recover some credibility after it was heavily criticised for allowing Volkswagen and other carmakers to cheat the system.

But the update was given short shrift for being “an ineffective regulation” and it is widely accepted that lobbying from Germany’s all-powerful automobile industry watered down targets and eliminated mandatory sales quotas for zero-emission vehicles.

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Troublesome transport

Unlike in sectors like agriculture and energy, emissions from transport continue to grow in the EU and could jeopardise the bloc’s 40% overall reduction goal if that trend is not reversed.

Last year was a mixed bag for light vehicles though, as reduction efforts varied between cars and vans. According to European Environment Agency data, new cars registered in 2017 emitted on average 0.4 more grams of CO2 per kilometre than in 2016. Emissions have still fallen 16% since 2010.

However, for vans, emissions fell a massive 7.7 grams on average in the same period. A further 6% of emissions savings must be found if the EU’s stringent 2020 target of 147g of CO2 per km is to be met.

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Next steps

MEPs and national capitals will now have their chance to tinker with the Commission’s effort to regulate car emissions. The first indication of changes to come was made by Socialist and Democrat lawmaker Miriam Dalli, who is the European Parliament’s lead rapporteur on the file.

Her draft report, presented on 16 May, ups the ante by increasing the Commission’s 15% interim target and 30% end-of-decade target to 25% and 50%, respectively. NGO Transport & Environment welcomed the effort as an improvement on the “inadequate” Commission proposal.

Dalli told EURACTIV that the mid-decade target is of particular importance because “in the absence of a new mandatory 2025 target, no car manufacturer will have the required incentive to move away from the 95g/km target that has to be achieved by 2021”.

The Maltese MEP’s draft will be voted on by the Parliament’s environment committee but a draft non-binding opinion by the influential industry and energy committee (ITRE) really demonstrates how potentially far apart the Commission and Parliament are, as it pushes for a 2030 target of 75%.

Industry players already branded the Commission’s car and truck proposals as “too aggressive”, so any increase in the overall and interim targets is likely to be met with strong opposition.

Greens/EFA lawmaker Jakop Dalunde drew heavily on a Paris Agreement-compliant scenario to justify scaling up the targets in his ITRE opinion, insisting that they can be met by introducing a 15% zero-emission vehicle quota for manufacturers.

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Competitive spark

The Commission is always keen to insist that its policymaking is technology neutral, a mantra repeated by Miriam Dalli, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on CO2 emission standards for cars.

“I want to get the message across that this is not only about electric vehicles,” she told EURACTIV. “This is not about killing other technologies to push electric vehicles. That’s why we speak about zero and low-emission vehicles,” she said insisting that the final aim is to reduce CO2 emissions using all technologies available.

But other MEPs have no such qualms about prioritising one type of vehicle over the other. In that regard, electric vehicles enjoy strong support.

In a separate opinion on promoting clean and energy-efficient transport, Green MEP Claude Turmes insists “electric mobility has to be privileged in this directive, as it is not only reducing CO2 emissions but also air and noise pollution”.

The Luxembourger also added that public procurement is a crucial area in which Europe can boost its competitive chances against the likes of China, where electric bus production topped 343,500 vehicles in 2016. In Europe, that figure was just 1,273.

Turmes also called on the proposed legislation to strengthen the link between the EU, capitals and local authorities in order to clean up transport. In Poland, for example, buses are already big business and domestic manufacturer Solaris will bring 25 of its award-winning buses to the streets of Brussels next year.

Breath of fresh air

It is the kind of initiative that cities in particular will be keen to engage with, as issues like air quality and noise pollution increasingly affect urbanites.

Six EU countries were hit with legal cases earlier this month when the Commission finally lost patience with France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania and the UK, who all failed to convince the EU executive that their plans to tackle air pollution were good enough.

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Spain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all gained a reprieve for now and Barcelona deputy mayor Janet Sanz told EURACTIV that it was clean air initiatives in her city, as well as in Madrid, that showed Brussels that sufficient measures are being taken.

Sanz, who heads up mobility and urban planning in the Catalan capital, said that a new strategy promoting e-bikes and even tourist-favourite Segways is already starting to pay off, adding that it is only a matter of time before e-buses take to Barcelona’s streets.

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