Member states resist stricter controls on diesel car emissions

In spite of the Volkswagen scandal, national governments have sought to water down the Commission´s proposal for the new emission tests. [Roger W]

European countries reached a compromise deal on new testing rules for cars on Wednesday (28 November) that allows vehicles to carry on emitting more than twice the agreed pollution limits, despite an outcry caused by the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The agreement, thrashed out in extended talks, diluted a proposal from the European Commission, after many of the 28 member states demanded leeway to protect the car industry.

EU sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Netherlands had been among a handful of countries seeking stricter rules, and it alone voted against the compromise as too weak.

>>Read: Dieselgate exposes member state opposition to emissions curbs

Member states were deeply divided before the five hour meeting started. Among those calling for more latitude for the car industry, the German government said: “The diesel engine should be preserved as a powertrain option on the mass market.” Germany also said controls on enforcement of legal limits needed to be pragmatic.

The European Commission had heaped pressure on EU governments to reach a swift deal. Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska said earlier on that day if member states could not agree, they would dent consumer confidence and have negative consequences for the automotive industry.

The Commission proposed that “real-world” testing should become operational starting next year, but would only take full effect after a two-year phase-in for new vehicles from 2017.

Initially nitrogen oxide (NOx) readings, primarily associated with diesel cars, could exceed an 80 milligramme/kilometre limit by 60 percent before falling to 20 percent.

Instead, the compromise agreed on Wednesday sets a “conformity factor” of 2.1 from late 2017, meaning cars could emit more than twice the official limit.

Two years later, it would fall to 1.5, the EU sources said, meaning vehicles could emit nitrogen oxides, associated with respiratory disease and premature death, up to 50 percent above the legal ceiling.

Volkswagen is battling the biggest business crisis in its 78-year history after admitting in September it installed software in diesel vehicles to deceive US regulators about toxic emissions.

In Europe, a failure to close the gap between NOx emissions in real driving conditions compared with tests, confirmed by European Commission research, has drawn unfavourable comparisons with Washington’s track record in policing business.

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

Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at Transport & Environment, said: “Citizens will wonder why their governments would rather help carmakers that cheat emissions tests than give them clean air to breathe." He added that "Nitrogen dioxide pollution, mainly from diesel cars, causes premature deaths, asthma and birth abnormalities. It is shocking that governments are so keen to please carmakers and ignore the health effects of this invisible killer of over half a million citizens annually.”

Dutch Liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy stated: "Today's decision on new car emission tests is contemptible."

Green environment spokesperson Bas Eickhout said in a statement: "We will now look at all legal means to challenge this decision and will push for the European Parliament to object to the proposal."

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 be cheated.

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.

  • January 2016: Car makers must start measuring NOx levels on the road.
  • September 2017: The new tests are taken into account to authorize the vehicles, although there will be a phase-in period with some leeway for the sector.
  • September 2019: Car makers can exceed 50% of the 80 mg/km limit.

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