It was interesting that the current controversy over Volkswagen cheating on diesel emissions tests was identified in the United States and not Europe. Europe is very proud of its standards for vehicles, appliances and buildings, but there has often been a concern that enforcement is either poor or unevenly done throughout the European Union. Member states have been reluctant to leave enforcement to the European Commission and so it is hard to know at any point in time how effective enforcement is for the EU as a whole.
The Financial Times published its own opinion that the EU needs to impose limits more forcefully. We’ll see how Member States react. But remember that this issue goes beyond diesel vehicles.
Europe has ducked its obligations on diesel cars
Ever since the scandal over Volkswagen’s cheating in diesel emissions tests erupted, much public anger has been directed at the brazen manner in which the car company disregarded environmental rules. But it is not just VW that has come under scrutiny. The debacle has also prompted a fierce debate among EU policymakers about how the bloc applies its own rules.
Environmental campaigners have been pressing the European Commission and the bloc’s 28 governments to be more robust in enforcing diesel emissions standards and to address the shortcomings in the current compliance system. A central concern raised by the VW case is that diesel-fuelled cars are tailored to perform well in laboratory tests, while producing far more harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) when driven on the road. This has made a mockery of the existing emission limits framework and is one of the reasons why European air quality has not improved in the past 15 years.
Last week, the EU’s 28 governments met to consider how the standards regime could be better applied. A few states, such as the Netherlands, pressed for strict enforcement of existing road test emissions targets. Others like France and Spain championed a more lenient approach, arguing that the car industry needs time to adjust before the rules are fully applied.
Their disagreement ended in a deal that has left the EU with a disappointingly weak testing framework. The EU stipulated that manufacturers will be allowed to exceed legal levels of NOx by 110 per cent between September 2017 and the start of 2020. After that, the motor industry will still be permitted to exceed the legal limit by 50 per cent — and indefinitely.
True, the choices for EU governments were far from easy. Europe’s indigenous car production is skewed heavily towards diesel vehicles. Their share among new registrations has soared to 53 per cent in 2013 from only 23 per cent in 1994. Too strict an enforcement of the current diesel emission standards would put a large part of European car production — and its 2.2m labour force — at risk.
At the same time, diesel carmakers would find it hard to introduce speedy technical changes to meet the existing EU rules when applied in a road test. The only diesel models that currently fulfil these criteria are at the very top of the price range for such cars.
Even so, the EU should not be ducking its green obligations. The existing emission limits have been on the statute book since 2007 with the idea that they would come into force in 2014. So there has been a long lead time for diesel carmakers to prepare for them.
Moreover, Europe’s continuing leniency towards diesel penalises those manufacturers that have invested in greener technology, notably hybrid and electric cars. While the dirtier parts of the industry continue to be favoured, it is hard to see how clean technologies can possibly grow.
It is increasingly evident that two decades ago, Europe backed the wrong horse when it favoured diesel on environmental grounds. While it is more efficient in terms of CO2 emissions, we now know that the other pollutants that it emits — notably nitrogen oxide — pose serious health risks.
As Europe tries to recover from the financial crisis, governments cannot ignore the real economic consequences of the decisions they take in this area. If they act too harshly, they could undermine an important part of Europe’s manufacturing sector. But EU policymakers need to recognise that the continent’s car industry will not invest in green technologies unless there is a real incentive to do so.