Cyclist wearing face mask to protect against polluted air. Photo: Hamish Irvine via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Time to crack down on car pollution - the silent killer with powerful friends
Jean Lambert, Molly Scott Cato & Keith Taylor
3rd February 2016
Air pollution from vehicles is killing tens of thousands of people every year in the UK alone, write Jean Lambert, Molly Scott Cato & Keith Taylor, an outrage set into stark focus by VW's 'test cheating'. The EU's response? To relax tests and allow cars to be more polluting - with the full support of the UK government.
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.
Faced with a public health crisis, responsible for nearly half a million premature deaths in Europe each year, we would expect an emergency response.
We would not expect those responsible for creating such a deadly crisis to be allowed to continue getting away with it.
And it would certainly be reasonable to expect those with the power to kerb such a catastrophe take all necessary action to deal with it, rather than colluding with the perpetrators.
Yet this is a tale of a silent killer stalking our streets, backed by a powerful industry with friends in high places. This faceless slayer is air pollution, the health impacts of which cost society up to €940bn annually.
Members of the European Parliament have a chance to tackle this outrage in a crucial vote on Wednesday and we call on them to do the right thing.
One of the most significant causes of air pollution is cars. Nitrogen Oxide emissions from diesel vehicles alone is responsible for around 75,000 premature deaths in Europe per year while air pollution contributes to the deaths of 29,000 people a year in the UK with cars being a key contributor.
STOP PRESS - Today's vote
MEPs vote for killer car pollution at double the legal limit.
Yet measures being introduced by the European Commission, taken by non-elected officials in a technical working group, and backed by national governments, will allow cars to exceed legal EU limits on pollutants. Indeed, the Tory government - in a private briefing leaked to The Ecologist - have expressed "strong support for the current agreement."
VW scandal heralds rewriting of pollution laws
This is the first European regulatory measure to be introduced in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal in which the German car manufacturer was found to have used software to purposely deceive Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) tests.
But 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.
They want to apply what is termed 'conformity factors' which will permit a discrepancy between the regulatory limits enshrined in law and newly introduced Real Driving Emissions (RDE) tests designed to assess vehicle emissions on the road. This would overwrite the legal pollutant limits set out in EU law since 2007 and allow the limits for Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) to be exceeded by a whopping 110% until 2021 and by 50% thereafter.
The 2007 legislation already requires the limit values for pollutants be met in "normal use" so there is no reason why these tests should allow the limits to be dramatically weakened.
The car industry lobby - a deadly influence
The decision to undermine pollutant limits decided on by directly-elected members of the European Parliament underlines the damaging, and deadly, influence car industry lobbying has on the EU Commission and EU governments.
Greens in the European Parliament recently commissioned a study on the influence of the car lobby. The report shows that key Member States and car companies have colluded to fight against progressive measures, while the European Parliament's Environment Committee and civil society organisations have been working to protect human health and the environment.
The report finds that car manufacturers exert high level political influence in Europe, using as leverage their economic clout and the fact they employ large numbers of skilled employees. The relationship between car manufacturers and government is particularly strong in Germany, but the report cites plenty of examples of a cosy relationship in the UK too.
The report says the UK government advocated for low compliance standards and a delay in implementing emissions standards. It also, aparently, agreed privately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to undermine EU emissions policy. Meanwhile, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has questioned scientific evidence that NOx is harmful to health.
Not to be left out of the act, the UK auto industry trade association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), appears to have been misleading about their actual knowledge of real world diesel emissions in public facing messaging. The SMMT launched a campaign in 2015 promoting diesel engines as the "cleanest ever".
Getting away with murder
This Wednesday the European Parliament will get a say on whether or not to reject the proposed measures. This is a vital opportunity for MEPs to follow the recommendation of the Parliament's environment committee and vote the measures down.
Weakening the existing EU pollution limits for cars will make it impossible for European cities to meet the standards for air quality set out in EU law. We cannot let car manufacturers, EU technicians and compliant politicians undo the progress made to protect public health and the environment.
In short, we cannot let them continue to get away with murder.
Jean Lambert is Green MEP for London.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar.
Keith Taylor is Green MEP for the South East of England.
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