The Financial Times’ view on diesel emissions

This week the Financial Times published an editorial on the shortcomings of Europe’s regulations and, equally important, its enforcement.


Europe’s failure to act on diesel emissions is indefensible

Europe’s collective failure to enforce its own rules on diesel emissions would look like a conspiracy — if it had not been such an open secret all along.

Nine months on from the start of the scandal, it is clear that Volkswagen’s systematic cheating in emissions tests was merely the most flagrant abuse of a deficient system. The industry had lobbied for laboratory tests to be conducted in conditions that often bore little relation to reality. Several manufacturers were then gaming the rules, in ways that may have been legal, but made a mockery of their intention. Worse, officials knew by 2011, if not earlier, that emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) in realistic driving conditions were often many times the legal limit — and failed to take action.

Regulators were at best incompetent, and at worst complicit in undermining environmental standards. And they still appear to be more interested in shuffling blame and attempting to protect their own national champions than in fixing the system. Hence the latest tussle in Brussels: Germany wants a vaguely worded exception in the EU legislation to be amended. The European Commission’s riposte is that national regulators have been too lax in implementing and enforcing the rules.

The prevarication is indefensible. No one doubts the political difficulty of taking on an industry that directly employs more than 2m across the EU. It is all the harder because European carmakers took a bet on diesel at the instigation of EU governments, who saw the technology as a way to cut carbon emissions and offered them incentives. A clampdown might threaten their survival.

Nonetheless, carmakers had ample time to meet limits that were agreed in 2007 and came into force in 2014. Letting them off the hook has not only contributed to the poor air quality of many European cities. It also unfairly penalises companies that invested in greener hybrid or electric cars — and those that may have genuinely found ways to make diesel engines cleaner.

The German carmaker suffered the worst scandal in its 78-year history after it admitted to manipulating emissions test data on its diesel vehicles in the US and Europe

It is absurd that manufacturers still argue that the “exceptional circumstances” in which they can turn off emissions control systems to protect a car’s engine should include routine situations such as weather barely below room temperature.

It is possible, as Germany argues, that tightening the wording of EU legislation might address some of these problems. But the indisputable priority is to ensure that national regulators — some of whom have not updated their own legislation to reflect the EU rules — start enforcing the existing standards.

The first step should be to prevent carmakers, who at present can ask any national regulator to certify a model for sale throughout the EU, from shopping around for lenient treatment. This could be achieved by oversight at EU level, or by other methods such as peer review of decisions.

The second step should be to strengthen the testing regime. Carmakers have won a delay in the introduction of on-road testing, and some latitude in how far they will be allowed to exceed the limits set for tests in laboratory conditions. There must be no tolerance of special pleading in framing these tests and the goal should be randomised tests of cars already in use.

Finally, national regulators must follow through on their investigations. They may not be able to enforce standards retrospectively, given the huge potential costs. But it is imperative to uncover the full extent of abuses and make sure there can be no recurrence. Drivers who bought diesel cars in the belief that they were clean, and the general public whose health has been put at risk, deserve answers and action.

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