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17th Apr 2021

Dieselgate leak: EU described own policy as 'complete failure'

  • The car lobby wanted leniency on a new on-road emissions test (Photo: EUobserver)

Three months before the VW scandal broke out in 2015, a senior EU civil servant called the bloc’s diesel-vehicle emissions policy “an almost complete failure” and urged the commission to “mitigate” car industry concerns over a new on-road test.

The five-page internal note, dated 16 June 2015, was written by Daniel Calleja, who was at the time the director-general at the commission's internal market and industry department.

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It was addressed to Tomasz Husak, the head of cabinet of industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, and seen by EUobserver.

Referring to EU efforts to curb emissions of nitrogen oxides [NOx], a harmful pollutant, he said: “Absolute NOx emissions of diesel vehicles under real driving conditions have hardly changed” despite “various” EU “steps”.

“For the particular aspect of NOx emissions of diesel vehicles the European emission legislation therefore must be considered as an almost complete failure until now,” he said, while noting that EU standards had been successful for other pollutants.

“On the road, a Euro 5 vehicle emits almost the same amount of NOx per km as a Euro 3 vehicle,” Calleja said.

Euro 5 refers to the binding set of emissions standards, which have become more strict with each generation, surpassing the older “Euro 3” rules, and leading, at least in theory, to cleaner air.

Calleja also gave Husak an update of the development of a new on-road emissions test, the so-called real driving emissions (RDE) method.

He said that car lobby group ACEA had expressed concern carmakers would not have time to adapt to the new test.

Calleja said that carmakers “have been strongly focussed” on passing the narrowly defined emissions tests in the laboratory, rather than making diesel cars that are clean on the road during normal driving conditions.

As a way to “mitigate” ACEA's concern, Calleja said the RDE test would be introduced in two steps, in what he frankly described as a “weakening the intentions of the initial Cars 2020 Communication”, a commission strategy paper that came out in 2012.

Calleja said that strict enforcement of the RDE test would only take place during the second phase, which would start around 2020.

He also said that the two-step solution, which was adopted by national governments four months later, still lacked a legal basis.

“For the moment this should be understood as a political intention,” he wrote.

“An appropriate legal justification still needs to be developed, because Euro 6 co-decision legislation in principle applies the respective emission limits without exception and does not allow for such "transitional" measures driven by technology concerns.”

Legal or not?

The paper contained remarks on the legality of carmakers' efforts to pass the test only, which contradict public statements made by commissioner Bienkowska.

“With today’s legislation manufacturers can legally ignore the calibration of NOx emission of diesel vehicles to real driving conditions, which leads to the described problems of NOx emissions,” Calleja wrote.

Bienkowska, in a speech that she gave a year later, criticised carmakers who switched off or turned down the emissions filter under certain conditions, with the excuse that they need to protect the engine.

“What you do is you make the exception the general rule,” said Bienkowska. “That is not acceptable to society. And it is not acceptable to me.”

How the car industry won the EU's trust

Car companies are allowed to do carry out some testing of their own products thanks to some little-noticed legislation inspired by an industry-backed report.

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