Weak EU tests for diesel emissions are ‘illegal’, say lawyers

kade rechteroever

Loopholes in planned ‘real world’ tests allow cars to emit double the standard for NOx pollution and are ‘legally indefensible’ say MEPs, after new advice revealed


Planned new ‘real driving emissions’ (RDE) test limits that would let cars substantially breach nitrogen oxide (NOx) standards are illegal under EU law, according to new legal analysis seen by the Guardian.

The proposed ‘Euro 6’ tests would allow diesel cars to emit more than double the bloc’s ‘80 mg per km’ standard for NOx emissions from 2019, and more than 50% above it indefinitely from 2021.

The UK supported these exemptions. But they contradict the regulation’s core objective of progressively scaling down emissions and improving air quality, according to an opinion by the European Parliament’s legal services, which the Guardian has seen.

In principle, the exemptions and loopholes “run counter [to] the aims and content of the basic regulation as expressed by the Euro 6 limit values,” says the informal paper prepared for MEPs on the parliament’s environment committee.

“The commission has taken a political decision to favour the commercial interests of car manufacturers over the protection of the health of European citizens,” adds a second analysis by the environmental law firm ClientEarth, also seen by the Guardian.

“The decision is therefore illegal and should be vetoed by the European Parliament,” the ClientEarth advice says.

Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat MEP on the environment committee, told the Guardian that as well as being morally unjustifiable, the agreement to water down the emissions limits was now “legally indefensible”.

“This was a political decision, not a technical one, and so it should have been subject to proper democratic accountability,” she told the Guardian. “MEPs must veto this shameful stitch-up and demand a stronger proposal, based on the evidence and not on pressure from the car industry.”

Richard Burden, the shadow transport minister, who pressed the government over its support for the new limits in October, accused them of a lack of leadership now.

“It really is not good enough,” he told the Guardian. “The pressure must be kept up for continuous improvements in emissions performance after 2020, as well as before, and the regulation which the EU adopts should reflect this .”

The two legal papers were prepared ahead of a plenary vote of all MEPs in Strasbourg that had been expected to block the legislation next week.

But on Thursday that vote was postponed until February, amid widespread industry lobbying and accusations of “political chicanery” by Green Party MEPs.

Rebecca Harms, the Greens co-president said that the postponement represented “a coup against the EU’s democratic decision-making” that would seriously damage its regulatory credibility after the “dieselgate” scandal.

Shares in the French car company Renault plunged by up to 20% yesterday on separate news that fraud investigators had searched three company sites and seized computers, as a national probe continues into whether other car companies have used VW-style ‘defeat devices’.

The auto industry has been pushing back strongly against regulatory pressure in Brussels though, calling for a speedy approval of the RDE package because “the industry urgently needs clarity”.

Firms say that ‘conformity factor’ exemptions, allowing 50% more NOx to be emitted than standards should permit, compensates for potential margins of error in testing.

The Guardian has seen an email to an MEP on the environment committee from an industry lobbyist arguing that blocking the Euro 6 package “would lead to a significant delay in the implementation of the RDE procedure, possibly by as much as one to two years”.

“We believe this is not in the interest of improving air quality and would undermine long-term planning in the industry,” said Amalia Di Stefano, the deputy CEO of the European Association of Automotive Suppliers.

The environment committee had called on the commission to present an improved proposal by April, although its ability to do so would depend on flexibility from countries with powerful auto industries, such as Germany.

Leading figures in the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D blocs, if not all their MEPs, appear to have gambled on a compromise with the European commission before February’s plenary vote. Brussels is due to bring forward separate proposals on 27 January, for the reform and regulation of national auto-emissions testing regimes.

Every year, around 23,500 Britons die prematurely from inhaling NOx emissions such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) particles, emitted by diesel engines. Another 29,000 die from inhaling sooty particulate matter, which by both diesel and petrol engines.

“Beyond corporate misconduct, premature deaths and quality of European lives are at stake in this decision,” said Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles and air quality officer for the Transport & Environment thinktank. “The commission and the environment ministers of the 28 countries should think twice before granting carmakers a licence to pollute.”


Arthur Neslen, Brussels
The Guardian 18-01-2016