Air Pollution

Air Pollution

The iceberg emerges

What a difference a year makes. One day car industry lobbyists are insisting that their companies face too high a regulatory burden; the next their natural EU supporter, the industry commissioner, is proposing tougher EU regulations and comparing carmakers with the banks at the root of the 2008 economic crisis. In the year since the Dieselgate scandal broke, T&E has moved beyond its familiar role of advocating for tighter new air pollution targets to focusing on how those targets are enforced. That means reform of the overall vehicle testing system – a goal we have long pushed for, but to little reward. In some ways carmakers did our work for us; the constant discoveries of new industry misdeeds made the case for reform undeniable. Dieselgate had only been the tip of the iceberg which was now in full view for all to see.

The European Commission rightfully took aim at enforcement agencies. With Germany approving Mercedes, France checking Renault, the UK clearing Jaguar and Italy signing off on Fiat, what else could we expect but a Dieselgate scandal? The national type approval agencies had not only failed to catch, or even investigate, Volkswagen cheating; they also allowed many others to systematically manipulate the tests, and allowed cars on the road that were in clear breach of the rules. The Commission’s proposed reforms also provided for re-tests of cars already in use – as they have in the US, where Volkswagen was caught cheating – and recalls and fines for carmakers selling cars that do not meet standards on the road.

EU industry commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska made her proposal in January and was met with a typically aggrieved response from manufacturers which have always resisted regulation. Yet for the next 12 months a constant stream of news and reports made it clear why the reforms were necessary. In February, MEPs, under pressure from their national governments, which in turn were leaned on by domestic carmakers, failed to oppose the weakening of the limits for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from new diesel cars agreed in late 2015. As a result, the effective new ‘Euro 6’ limit, 168mg of NOx per km, will be more than double that agreed in 2007 (80mg/km). From 2020, all new cars will still be allowed to emit 120mg/km.

Within a few months, the results of three government investigations into Dieselgate turned up three new defeat devices. The government probes found but ignored a ‘thermal window’ defeat device that switches off pollution control technology in low and high ambient temperatures outside of those prescribed in a test. A second device, a ‘hot restart’ defeat device, whereby the tested cars have higher emissions after warm engine restarts (compared to a cold one required by EU law), also went unpunished. An alleged third device saw some Fiat models switch off the exhaust treatment system two minutes after the lab test was completed. The Italian government continues to deny any wrongdoing by its home champion.

“Carmakers are abusing another loophole, according to Greg Archer of Transport & Enviroment, a green pressure group. Turning off emissions controls is permitted at low temperatures, to protect engine components. Yet it is also common for this to happen at balmy outside temperatures, in some cases as high as 18°C.” The Economist, 30 April 2016

The three investigations in France, Germany and the UK also provided T&E with a rich seam of data to mine. We compiled a ‘Dirty 30’ list of cars with suspicious emissions behaviour that had been allowed for sale on the EU market. Of these 30, three-quarters had been approved for sale in by the ‘home’ national authorities of carmakers. Some type approval authorities were asked to account for their actions at the European Parliament’s Dieselgate inquiry. The evidence of the German, Italian, Dutch and Luxembourgish regulators confirmed T&E’s assertion that authorities in charge of enforcing environmental and safety rules had consistently failed to do their job. As T&E’s executive director told the inquiry, national enforcement of emissions standards for cars has been “virtually non-existent”.

As we reached the one-year anniversary of the scandal, T&E seized the moment to reveal that not one single brand was complying with the latest air pollution limits (Euro 6) for diesel cars and vans in real-world driving. Again drawing on the government investigations, but also an independent database, we calculated that 29 million diesel cars and vans sold since 2011 were driving on Europe’s roads that could be classified as ‘dirty’ – meaning that they were at least three times over the relevant NOx limit. Minimal and often voluntary recalls have so far been agreed.

Air Pollution

T&E also had one eye on an emerging threat to our air quality: the newest generation of gasoline direct injection (petrol) engines. Carmakers, supported by some governments, had been pushing for new petrol-engine cars to be allowed to emit over a hundred times more particles and thereby avoid fitting a gasoline particulate filter costing just €25. But T&E obtained documents exposing these efforts – which would only pave the way for a future ‘Petrolgate’ air pollution scandal. Through our fast action, member states were embarrassed into climbing down and agreeing a safer limit.

Separately we welcomed the fact that another long-term goal was realised: new diesel machinery such as construction machines and generators will be required to have exhaust treatment systems, under a law agreed in 2016. It means more diesel machines will now be required to clean up their act with diesel particulate filters. Disappointingly, diesel trains and barges will not need to have adequate exhaust treatment systems after heavy industry lobbying. But the Commission is to examine the possible retrofitting of existing diesel off-road machinery and present proposals in the coming years.

Learn more