Return of the ‘big bad’ car industry as auto lobbyists water down pollution standards

Anna Krajinska — November 29, 2022

Carmakers can afford to make cleaner cars with technology that is already available and affordable. They choose not to.

Seven years ago the Dieselgate scandal rocked the auto industry. Millions of customers were duped into buying grossly polluting cars. Trust in carmakers was destroyed. 

In public at least, it brought about a complete volte face as carmakers sought to clean up their image and win back consumer trust. Herbert Diess, the then new pro-EV CEO of Volkswagen would become the figurehead of a new progressive European car industry.

Yet, despite the expensive EV advertising campaigns and public support (in most parts) for more ambitious EV targets, this month saw the return of the big bad car industry. The question is, did it ever go away in the first place?

Profits over clean air

Earlier this month, the European Commission rejected its own expert advice on new rules for non-CO2 car emissions – Euro 7 – aimed at slashing deadly pollution from cars. The Commission caved in to car lobbyists in a move that will greenwash 100 million heavily polluting cars sold in the decade up to 2035.

Carmakers painted an apocalyptic vision of a world with a strong Euro 7: the cost of implementing stricter emission standards would make cars unaffordable; it threatened jobs and mass redundancies; the technology wasn’t ready and would take years of costly R&D; and they argued vehemently that stricter standards would force them to divert resources from electric vehicles. 

In reality, technologies able to meet stricter limits that could cut toxic pollution by at least 50% and which require no hardware changes to the engine already exist and are affordable. The Commission’s own impact assessment found the average additional cost to be just  €304 – less than a paint job on a Renault Clio.

The Commission spent four years – and millions of taxpayer money – working on Euro 7. But despite acknowledging that road transport causes 70,000 premature deaths in the EU every year, the Commission rejected its own experts’ advice to tighten air pollution limits beyond standards already set for petrol cars. 

To avoid tighter rules, the carmakers tried every trick in the book. ACEA, a car industry lobby, claimed that stringent new limits would ‘kill the internal combustion engine’ and ‘be too costly’. At one meeting with the Commission, a Volkswagen lobbyist even claimed that Euro 7 rules would put women at risk without providing a scrap of evidence to support his claims.

Despite overwhelming support for an ambitious Euro 7, the Commission came up with nothing better than Euro 6 in disguise. This could have only happened at the bequest of the car industry. According to Commission documents they were the main stakeholders involved in the process that were overwhelmingly opposed to cutting pollution.

Return of the big bad car industry

The industry has spent billions trying to convince the public that they have cleaned up their act since Dieselgate, but Euro 7 has shown their true colours, fighting tooth and nail against it. This comes at a time when carmakers are raking in record profits. Last year, VW made €20 billion in profit while BMW made twice as much as pre-Covid 2019. 

Carmakers can afford to make cleaner cars with technology that is already available and affordable. They choose not to. There can be no doubt that to European carmakers the health of European citizens does not matter, only profit. And as was the status quo before Dieselgate, the European Commission has sided with them. The big question now is, will the European Parliament and Council prevent air pollution injustice from happening again? 

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