Commission reluctant to tackle Dieselgate health fallout

Volkswagen Beetle R at the Frankfurt Motor Show. [Autoviva / Flickr]

Dieselgate may already have cost lives, but the European Commission is continuing to dodge questions about its health consequences.

In September, it was revealed that Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest car manufacturer, had routinely gamed US emissions tests, putting the spotlight on the environmental and health impact of cars.

>>Read: VW scandal threatens case for €16bn diesel tax subsidy

A new study in Environmental Research Letters suggests that the higher nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from Volkswagen’s cars in the US may have already contributed to 60 premature deaths. 130 additional deaths could occur if emission problems with the affected cars are not solved by the end of 2016. The social costs are estimated to be around €760 million. 

What the figures would be for Europe is so far unknown. Asked by EURACTIV on Thursday (29 October) about the impact of the new ceilling on NOx emission on health in the EU, the Commission parried the question by saying it’s not only tightening up vehicle emissions, but also “takes strong action to ensure that the overall air pollution standards in member states are met”.

“We set objections which we monitor constantly. So there’s both a tightening of what comes out of the cars, and the overall air pollution objectives are in member states and the cities,” a spokeswoman for the Commission said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines air pollution as one of the main avoidable causes of disease and death globally. In the EU, it is responsible for reducing life expectancy by an average of almost nine months. Health costs from air pollution are estimated at €330–940 billion a year.

Experts say that air quality in much of Europe is poor, contributing significantly to asthma, COPD, heart disease, lung and other cancers, and brain damage in children. 

The Commission has now effectively passed the NOx emission problem on to the member states. But the member states likewise chose on Wednesday (27 October) to resist stricter controls on diesel car emissions by allowing vehicles to carry on emitting more than twice the agreed upon pollution limits.

>>Read: Member states resist stricter controls on diesel car emissions

“Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good. The Commission only makes proposals. Of course ideally we would like to see real driving emission reduced further. A compromise was necessary to reach an agreement by member states and to ensure that the new robust testing method is implemented quickly,” a spokesperson for Internal Market Commissioner El?bieta Bie?kowska said.

>>Read: Denmark’s new NOx tax keeps politicians nervous

In previous years, some member states tried to tackle NOx emissions with limited success. In 2011, Denmark’s then-centre-left government raised the country’s tax on NOx pollution from €0.7 to 3.4 per kilo, prompting industries particularly power plants and energy-intensive industries to threaten to move leave Denmark. In 2015, Denmark’s new right-wing government decided to scrap the NOx tax.


Since 2012, the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified diesel engine exhaust as a carcinogen, and has advised that, given the additional health impacts of diesel particulates, exposure to the mixture of chemicals emitted should be reduced worldwide.

NOx is a major air pollutant which causes, inter alia, lung cancer, asthma and many respiratory diseases, as well environmental degradation such as eutrophication and acidification. Diesel vehicle exhausts are a principal source of NOx in urban areas in Europe. Up to a third of the EU’s urban population continues to be exposed to levels above the limits or target values set by the EU.

Meanwhile, passenger cars alone are responsible for around 12% of total EU emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas.

In 2007, the EU proposed legislation setting emissions performance standards for new cars, which was adopted in 2009 by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. 

>>Read our LinksDossier: Cars and CO2

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