Dirty diesels still causing air pollution despite efforts to tackle them

Efforts to tackle air pollution caused by diesel cars are moving the problem east rather than solving it. That is the conclusion of an analysis by T&E to coincide with Bulgaria’s presidency of the EU. Another T&E report suggests that efforts to clean up the air in western European cities are less effective than they should be because decisions on restricting certain car types are not based on real-world emissions.

The need for Europe’s cities to reduce air pollution has led to many cities proposing to ban diesel cars. This in turn has led to motorists abandoning diesels, many of which are ending up in central and eastern Europe (CEE) as the market for diesels falters in western Europe. As there are barely any measures to restrict the circulation of polluting vehicles in the CEE area the danger is that the diesel pollution will simply shift eastwards.

With Bulgaria currently holding the EU presidency and choosing air quality as one of its priority policy areas, T&E has prepared a briefing, Dirty diesels heading east, which calculates for the first time the estimated numbers of polluting diesels being imported into Bulgaria and from where. The data shows that over 35,000 dirty diesels were exported to Bulgaria in 2017 alone, emitting more than 12 times the limit of NOx allowed under EU law.

More than half of the dirty diesels are over 10 years old and lack the standard diesel particle filters found on all new cars after 2011; it means they emit dangerous cancer-causing fine particles that are already a serious problem in south-eastern Europe as well as high levels of nitrogen oxides. Most cars came from Italy, where the Fiat-Chrysler group is based. (Fiat was found to be the most grossly polluting diesel carmaker in Europe in a T&E survey in 2016.) The full Bulgarian data is available on request.

A separate but related T&E briefing makes clear that low-emissions zones (LEZ) and bans on diesels in cities are not as effective as they should be because too many vehicles that are allowed in them have excessive polluting emissions. Most LEZs or diesel-free zones allow cars that meet Euro-6 emissions standards, but more than 90% of new Euro-6 diesels on sale today don’t meet the EU emission limits on the road, in many cases because of the Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ scandal that manipulated test results.

T&E’s clean vehicles manager Julia Poliscanova said: ‘One of the weaknesses of LEZs and car restrictions in cities is the blanket exemption of Euro-6 diesels, when most of them are grossly polluting and do not meet the standards in real-world conditions. Some Euro-6 vehicles even admit more NOx on the road than Euro-4 and Euro-5 cars that are often banned. To be effective, authorities that introduce LEZs and diesel bans should base their criteria on vehicles’ real-world emissions that are now widely available, otherwise their measures will do nothing to improve air quality and will create irrational discrimination between vehicle types.’