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26th Jan 2020

Investigation

Leaked memo: EU commissioner ignored car emissions warnings

  • Then commissioner for industry Tajani (l) visiting Volkswagen in Wolfsburg in 2010 (Photo: European Commission)

The car industry put “considerable pressure” on the European Commission and member states in 2012 to “delay action” on reducing toxic emissions by passenger vehicles, according to an internal EU document.

The document, seen by EUobserver, also showed there was a power struggle between the environment and industry departments of the commission, the EU's Brussels-based executive branch.

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  • The document was written by EU commission civil servants from the directorate-general for environment (Photo: EUobserver)

The text is relevant in the context of the EU parliament's Dieselgate inquiry committee.

The responsible commissioners for the 2010-2014 period, Janez Potocnik and Antonio Tajani, will testify in Brussels on Monday (5 September).

The paper was drawn up by civil servants from the directorate-general (DG) for environment, and included a table that listed future risks relating to EU legislation. The “failure to control vehicle emissions” was identified as one of the risks.

“Widespread non-compliance with the EU air quality legislation continues to lead to over 200,000 premature deaths per year and the commission [is] appearing unable to act,” the document said.

The paper noted that the risk type for this issue was “internal” and that the risk level was “very important”.

It said that cars were emitting “much higher than expected” levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides - pollutants that can have severe effects on human health.

However, the environment DG does not have power over cars. That authority lies with the DG for enterprise and industry.

According to the DG environment civil servants, their colleagues at the industry department did not do enough to solve the issue, and had proved susceptible to the car industry lobby.

Online lobbying watchdog Lobbyfacts reported on Thursday that the car industry spent €10 million on lobbying in Brussels in 2012.

Moratorium

The civil servants proposed to “pressure” the industry DG to introduce stricter provisions.

But the then responsible commissioner, Italian centre-right politician Antonio Tajani, that year had put out a public statement, declaring “a regulatory moratorium to avoid new costs and limit relocations”, in an effort to help the automotive industry survive the economic crisis.

The DG environment civil servants suggested that Tajani should be convinced to “reconsider” his moratorium, since the high emissions “jeopardise the [air quality] policy framework leading to substantial health and environmental impacts”.

The problem could not be solved by the environment DG alone “due to limited means and leverage possible” the document said. The paper suggested “liaising” with other DG's, like the climate change and the health departments.

The civil servants also realised real change would only come if their commissioner and director-general would use their political clout.

“To be taken up (again) at highest political levels,” they noted.

'Widespread concerns'

This subsequently happened, as reported recently by EUobserver and other media.

Environment commissioner Janez Potocnik raised the issue of high “real-world emissions” compared to test lab results, in a letter to industry commissioner Antonio Tajani,dated 12 February 2013.

“There are widespread concerns that performance has been tailored tightly to compliance with the test cycle in disregard of the dramatic increase in emissions outside that narrow scope,” wrote Potocnik.

In other words: car companies were designing their cars so they would pass the emissions test, but would emit beyond EU limits once on the road.

“Vehicles are required to comply with the Euro limit values in normal driving conditions, and my services and I are often put in an uncomfortable position when defending the perceived lack of action by the Commission and Member States in addressing the obvious failure to ensure this”, Potocnik said.

The Falkenberg letter

Almost two years later, the highest civil servant in the environment DG wrote a new letter, addressed to his counterpart at DG industry, Daniel Calleja Crespo.

But this November 2014 letter by environment director-general Karl Falkenberg was apparently not the first attempt to raise awareness.

Falkenberg told Calleja he was “obliged to come back to you once again” to the issue of real-world emissions.

He reminded Calleja about recently published studies that showed diesel cars of the new Euro 6 standard emitted nitrogen oxides (NOx) beyond EU limits.

“For some of them NOx emissions were up to 20 (!) times above the standard,” he wrote, adding later that the situation is “clearly against the letter and the spirit of the EU type approval legislation”.

Falkenberg asked Calleja to investigate the suspicion that some carmakers switched off their emission filters at low temperatures or when the vehicle needed additional power.

“This practice in our opinion goes beyond what is allowed by the Euro 5/6 legislation. A request to look into this matter more deeply has remained unanswered so far.”

But the request went unanswered again.

In his response, Calleja noted he was “aware of the discrepancy between vehicles' regulatory emission limits and those observed in real life”, but did not say anything about the petition for an investigation.

US revelation

By contrast, authorities in the United States did investigate the discrepancy reported to them by an environmental group, and eventually convinced Volkswagen to admit it had used illegal cheating software.

Former commissioner Tajani will have to explain himself at Monday's hearing.

But some parliament sources predicted that the hearing may turn into a heated fight between political groups.

The Italian is now an MEP for the centre-right group EPP, the largest political force in the EU parliament.

Tajani is one of the parliament's 14 vice-presidents and a potential contender for the presidency, currently held by centre-left German Martin Schulz, whose mandate ends this year.

This article is part of an investigative series by EUobserver, which is still ongoing. To read more articles, go to euobserver.com/dieselgate

One year on: Dieselgate keeps getting bigger

One year ago, it emerged that VW had cheated on emission tests in what came to be called the Dieselgate affair. EUobserver looked at how it happened and what the EU did to stop it.

EU told of possible emission cheating in 2012

The Joint Research Centre said in 2012 that a diesel vehicle was emitting much more nitrogen oxide (NOx) when the outside temperature was different from the laboratory parameters.

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