European lawmakers back limited reduction in car emissions

Volkswagen has more lobbyists in Brussels than any other car manufacturer. [Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr]

European lawmakers on Wednesday (3 February) backed a compromise deal to reduce car emissions that will still allow vehicles to exceed official pollution limits, defying calls for more radical reform following Volkswagen’s emissions-test cheating scandal.

The vote, which narrowly rejected a proposal to block the compromise, had been scheduled for January, but was delayed by bitter arguments between members of the European Parliament and fierce lobbying.

Volkswagen’s admission in September that it cheated US diesel emissions tests created a political storm in Europe where around half of vehicles are diesel.

Diesel is particularly associated with emissions of nitrogen oxide linked to lung disease and premature deaths.

The European Commission had already begun trying to close a known gap between laboratory testing of new vehicles and the real world, where toxic emissions have surged to more than seven times official limits.

In a statement following the vote, a Commission spokesperson said, “We welcome the European Parliament’s endorsement of the agreement reached by member states on the Real Driving Emissions package. From September 2017, new car models will have to pass new emissions tests before they are allowed to be placed on the EU market.

“By better reflecting the actual level of emissions in real driving conditions, these tests will reduce the net amount of air pollution emitted by diesel cars.”

However, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) said in a position paper seen by Reuters that the Commission’s reform plans were too challenging for current diesel models and could threaten the technology as a whole, jeopardising jobs across the region.

At a closed-door meeting in October, EU member states agreed a compromise — now backed by the European Parliament — that would cut emissions but still allow a 50% overshoot of the legal ceiling for nitrogen oxide of 80 milligrams/kilometre.

Mayors from cities including Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid, Milan and Naples had urged the European Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, to reject the plan.

“If such a decision would be confirmed, we fear that our commitment to reduce air pollution in cities will become meaningless,” a letter from eight city mayors to members of parliament said.

Green lawmakers and liberals also pressed for a rejection, saying the compromise was an illegal weakening of already agreed limits.

On Monday evening (1 February), MEPs in the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) voted in favour of an opinion criticising the Commission-backed deal.

The Environment Committee (ENVI) rejected the deal in December.

“Unfortunately, clean air, fair competition and the rule of law did not get a majority today,” Dutch Liberal politician Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy said.

But the dominant centre right grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP), backed the compromise

It said rejecting the plan would delay a reduction in vehicle emissions, as a new proposal would have to be agreed and the car industry would lack regulatory certainty to invest in cleaner technology.

The Commission welcomed Wednesday’s vote as a step in the right direction and urged manufacturers to start designing vehicles “for full compliance with the legal emissions limit” when measured in real driving conditions. 

Jacob Bangsgaard, director of Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in Europe: "We cautiously welcome the current package, as a first step to be refined with stricter conformity targets in the course of implementation. This decision allows for a start to testing in-use emissions sooner rather than later. It is our hope that this legislation will trigger innovation to make sure consumers get efficient vehicles for their daily mobility needs."

Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout (Green): "Today's vote confirms this license to pollute for European car makers. The 'conformity factors' decision essentially overwrites EU limits on pollutants from cars by introducing major loopholes that would allow cars to pollute at far above the legal limits (1). As a direct response to the 'diesel-gate' scandal, this is a serious blow to the credibility of the EU to regulate the car industry. It is also a slap in the face to the European Parliament's powers as a co-legislator, as it de facto rewriting EU rules that were agreed with and voted on by the parliament."

Greg Archer, clean vehicles director at NGO Transport & Environment: "It’s disgraceful that the most powerful countries in Europe think that keeping dirty diesel is good for their car industry while citizens are poisoned. The European Commission and progressive members of the European Parliament have fought tooth and nail to prevent a bad outcome but this wasn’t sufficient to counter the pressure from EU national governments.”

EUROCITIES secretary general Anna Lisa Boni said, “Today’s vote effectively gives the green light for cars to emit higher levels of harmful pollutants, jeopardising Europe’s air quality and public health. We therefore urge the Commission and member states to review the conformity factor during its next annual review, with a view to bringing it down to 1 as soon as possible. This would make an important contribution to cleaning up our air.”

Alan Andrews, air pollution lawyer at ClientEarth, said, “By allowing this illegal proposal, the European Parliament has aided and abetted the Commission in putting car industry profit above people’s health." 

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal MEP and Environment committee coordinator for the ALDE group, said, "EU governments and the European Commission have undermined democratically agreed pollution limits in a backroom, but we failed to stand up against this injustice. People living in the polluted cities and car manufacturers that have invested in clean technology pay the price. Unfortunately, clean air, fair competition and the rule of law did not get a majority today. In a strong European democracy it is unacceptable that Member States refuse to be publicly accountable for their unfounded decision.”

US regulators found that Volkswagen designed software for close to half a million diesel cars that gave false emissions data during the laboratory tests. Experts consider that tests on the road are more difficult to cheat.

In Europe, while the European Commission and the national authorities are preparing more strict emissions limits, a number of inquiries have already been opened in France.

But the executive seems reluctant to open any kind of inquiry. El?bieta Bie?kowska, the Internal Market Commissioner, has upset MEPs by saying that the executive intends not to act until the member states have conducted their own national investigations.

The presidents of the European Parliament´s Environment, Transport, Internal Market and Industry committees have decided to investigate how Volkswagen cars could have cheated the testing system without the fraud being picked up at any stage by the European Commission.

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