There's the pollution you can see, and the even more dangerous pollution that's invisible: the high levels of nitrogen oxides produced by many modern diesel cars. Photo: Adrian Midgley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
MEPs vote for killer car pollution at double the legal limit
3rd February 2016
Right wing MEPs in the European Parliament including UK conservatives today voted car makers a 'get out of jail free' card over air pollution that's killing tens of thousands of citizens a year, allowing their vehicles to emit double the legal limit for nitrogen oxides.
These watered-down EU standards were supported by the UK Government, although tens of thousands of its residents die early every year from air pollution which breaches legal health limits.
European lawmakers today backed a 'compromise deal' to reduce car emissions that will still allow vehicles to exceed official pollution limits, defying calls for more radical reform following Volkswagen's emissions-test cheating scandal.
The vote, which narrowly rejected a proposal to block the compromise, had been scheduled for January, but was delayed by bitter arguments between members of the European Parliament and fierce lobbying.
Volkswagen's admission in September that it cheated US diesel emissions tests created a political storm in Europe where around half of vehicles are diesel. Diesel is particularly associated with emissions of nitrogen oxide linked to lung disease and premature deaths.
The European Commission had already begun trying to close a known gap between laboratory testing of new vehicles and the real world, where toxic emissions have surged to more than seven times official limits.
However, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) said in a position paper seen by Reuters that the Commission's reform plans were 'too challenging' for current diesel models and could threaten the technology as a whole, jeopardising jobs across the region.
At a closed-door meeting in October, EU member states agreed a compromise - now backed by the European Parliament - that would cut emissions but still allow a 50% overshoot of the legal ceiling for nitrogen oxide of 80 milligrams / kilometre.
Strong resistance from Green and liberal MEPs
On Monday evening MEPs in the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) voted in favour of an opinion criticising the Commission-backed deal. The Environment Committee (ENVI) had previously rejected the deal in December.
Green and liberal MEPs also pressed for a rejection, saying the compromise was an illegal weakening of already agreed limits. As the UK's three Green MEPs wrote on The Ecologist this morning:
"Rather than clamping down on the car industry's irresponsible approach to pollution, EU governments and the Commission instead want to rewrite existing law, providing loopholes which will allow cars to legally pollute more."
But the dominant centre right grouping, the European People's Party (EPP), backed the compromise. It said rejecting the plan would delay a reduction in vehicle emissions, as a new proposal would have to be agreed and the car industry would lack regulatory certainty to invest in cleaner technology.
"Unfortunately, clean air, fair competition and the rule of law did not get a majority today", commented Dutch Liberal politician Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy. The UK's Green MEP Molly Scott Cato added:
"This vote underlines the damaging and deadly influence the car industry has on the EU Commission and EU governments. The fact that Tory MEPs were urged to vote in favour of these deathly loopholes reveal a government that has a dangerously cosy relationship with the car manufacturing industry and their lobbyists."
Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout concurred: "Today's vote confirms this license to pollute for European car makers. The 'conformity factors' decision essentially overwrites EU limits on pollutants from cars by introducing major loopholes that would allow cars to pollute at far above the legal limits.
"As a direct response to the 'diesel-gate' scandal, this is a serious blow to the credibility of the EU to regulate the car industry. It is also a slap in the face to the European Parliament's powers as a co-legislator, as it de facto rewriting EU rules that were agreed with and voted on by the parliament."
It's an improvement, insists the Commission
In a statement following the vote, a Commission spokesperson said: "We welcome the European Parliament's endorsement of the agreement reached by member states on the Real Driving Emissions package.
"From September 2017, new car models will have to pass new emissions tests before they are allowed to be placed on the EU market. By better reflecting the actual level of emissions in real driving conditions, these tests will reduce the net amount of air pollution emitted by diesel cars."
The Commission went on to urge manufacturers to start designing vehicles "for full compliance with the legal emissions limit" when measured in real driving conditions.
Jacob Bangsgaard, director of Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in Europe also sounded a positive note: "We cautiously welcome the current package, as a first step to be refined with stricter conformity targets in the course of implementation.
"This decision allows for a start to testing in-use emissions sooner rather than later. It is our hope that this legislation will trigger innovation to make sure consumers get efficient vehicles for their daily mobility needs."
European cities disappointment - possible legal action?
EUROCITIES secretary general Anna Lisa Boni expressed her anger: "Today's vote effectively gives the green light for cars to emit higher levels of harmful pollutants, jeopardising Europe's air quality and public health.
"We therefore urge the Commission and member states to review the conformity factor during its next annual review, with a view to bringing it down to 1 as soon as possible. This would make an important contribution to cleaning up our air."
Mayors from cities including Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid, Milan and Naples had urged the European Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, to reject the plan. "If such a decision would be confirmed, we fear that our commitment to reduce air pollution in cities will become meaningless", said a letter from eight city mayors to members of parliament.
Alan Andrews, air pollution lawyer at ClientEarth, may have been hinting at the possibility of a legal challenge when he said: "By allowing this illegal proposal, the European Parliament has aided and abetted the Commission in putting car industry profit above people's health." After all, even the Commission and the Parliament are not above the law.
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: "It beggars belief that politicians are weakening pollution standards for new vehicles when people are dying from filthy air. These watered-down EU standards were supported by the UK Government, despite the fact that tens of thousands of its residents die early every year from air pollution which breaches legal health limits."
The presidents of the European Parliament's Environment, Transport, Internal Market and Industry committees have decided to investigate how Volkswagen cars could have cheated the testing system without the fraud being picked up at any stage by the European Commission.
However the executive seems reluctant to open any kind of inquiry. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the Internal Market Commissioner, has upset MEPs by saying that the executive intends not to act until the member states have conducted their own national investigations.
This article is based on one originally published by EurActiv.com with additional reporting by The Ecologist.
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