Signs of the EU finally losing patience over Dieselgate

by Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles and air quality manager

WHAT WE LEARNED IN 2016: In response to the Dieselgate scandal, 2016 started with a bang with the Commission’s type approval proposal to reform the EU’s failed system of vehicle testing. The European Parliament also flexed its muscles by refusing to accept the new on-road tests for NOx emissions that doubled and delayed the agreed Euro 6 limits – peace only breaking out when the Commission promised to make the limits stricter in the future. EU policymakers also agreed the new air quality law, the National Emission Ceilings Directive to limit the emissions from member states – although the final outcome was deeply disappointing.

While Dieselgate engulfed most of the car industry, EU governments and their toothless regulators remained in denial despite a tsunami of evidence of widespread cheating. There are a staggering 29 million grossly polluting diesels on Europe’s roads; but carmakers think the scandal is a “big fuss,” and explain they only turned off emissions controls most of the time “with the best intentions.” To T&E’s surprise, the new VW cars sold since 2015 are among the cleanest, with Fiat, Renault and Opel/Vauxhall producing the dirtiest models. But the national regulators keep refusing to investigate and recall most of these cars.

Equally as deplorable, national testing regulators are plotting to delay and weaken the progressive and much needed type approval reforms proposed by the Commission. Specifically, they oppose independent checks and oversight of their testing activities. The status quo – in which national regulators turn a blind eye to carmakers’ abuses of the rules to protect national champions or their fee paying automotive customers – serves them well. The somber truth about test manipulations came in November, when Europe’s Environment Agency, the EEA, confirmed that 467,000 Europeans die prematurely each year as a result of toxic air pollution, with much of it coming from road vehicles in urban areas.

As 2016 draws to a close the Commission and the Parliament have lost patience and taken steps to break the stalemate. Having heard enough of national incompetence in the parliamentary VW enquiry committee (called EMIS), the Parliament's Environment and Transport committees have overwhelmingly voted for future vehicle testing to be in the hands of a new EU agency. And tired of constant “nyet” to its information requests on emissions investigations, the Commission earlier this month launched legal action against seven countries for failure to implement the current type approval rules.

Just as 2016 started with a bang, so will 2017. The agreement on extending the new on-road tests to particulate emissions (known as RDE 3) is imminent and national governments are under growing pressure to agree to an ambitious package. The type approval reform will see the co-decision makers knock heads. The Commission will increase the pressure through taking forward its infringements. It will also introduce new rules for testing cars in use. Decisions in 2017 on tests and approval of cars are likely to decide the credibility and effectiveness of EU emissions rules for the next decade, along with directly impacting on citizens’ health.