Dieselgate: EU eases car emissions limit in spite of VW scandal

European Member States have this week reached a compromised deal on the introduction of "real-world" emissions tests which would essentially allow vehicles to continue emitting more than twice the agreed pollution limits.

An extended Member States meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (28 October) concluded that, from September 2017, new ‘real driving emissions’ (RDE) tests will determine whether a new car model is allowed to be put on the market.

The proposed RDE test procedure is designed to better reflect actual driving on the road compared to the current laboratory tests, which have been shown to vastly underestimate the levels of pollutants emitted from car exhausts.

But crucially, the Member States agreed that nitrogen oxide (NOx) readings – primarily associated with diesel cars – should allow for “conformity factors”, to reflect testing uncertainties and take into account technical margins of error. 

Laxer limits

The conformity factor for new vehicles up to September 2019 has been set at 2.1, falling to 1.5 two years later. In practice, this means that new cars could still be emitting more than twice (110%) the official emissions limit of 80mg/km as of 2017, and up to 50% above that legal limit in 2019. The European Commission had initially proposed to set the conformity factor at 60% for 2017, falling to 20% in 2019.

According to EU sources, the Netherlands was the only country to oppose the proposals, which came after heavy lobbying from the car industry and EU countries including the UK, Germany, France and Spain. The recent VW emissions testing scandal and studies showing that just one in 10 cars meet current emissions limits appear to have had little effect on the voting.

Commissioner Elżbieta  defended the outcome of the meeting, pointing out that this is still a “significant reduction” compared to the current discrepancy between laboratory and real-world conditions that is allowed (400% on average).

Bieńkowska said: “The EU is the first and only region in the world to mandate these robust testing methods. And this is not the end of the story. We will complement this important step with a revision of the framework regulation on type-approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles.”


However, green groups and politicians have lambasted the weakened proposals. 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.

“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.”

Simon Birkett, founder and director of campaign group Clean Air in London, went a step further, calling for an outright ban on diesel engines. Birkett told edie: “The only way though to solve the underlying problem is to ban diesel from the most polluted places as we banned coal burning so successfully 60 years ago. Diesel has been the biggest public health catastrophe in UK policy history.”

The draft regulation will now be sent to the European Parliament and the Council for regulatory scrutiny.

Almost 9,500 people were killed by air pollution in London in 2010 – the nearest available year of data – with as many as 5,900 deaths caused by long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide pollution.

Luke Nicholls

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