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16th Oct 2021

Commission: clean up diesel cars, or EU agency inevitable

  • Bienkowska: 'It seems we have not yet reached the bottom of the emission scandal' (Photo: European Commission)

European commissioner for industry Elzbieta Bienkowska said in a letter to EU governments that if they do not do more to remove diesel cars with excessive emissions from the roads, “the only alternative” would be to establish a pan-European agency to take care of the problem.

She said in a letter to transport ministers, seen by this website, that she was “very concerned” about new reports of Audi and Porsche vehicles being equipped with emissions cheating software.

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  • European cities are increasingly banning certain diesel vehicles (Photo: harry_nl)

“It seems we have not yet reached the bottom of the emission scandal", Bienkowska wrote in the letter dated Monday (17 July).

The Polish EU commissioner said that ministers need to “pro-actively engage in political dialogue” with automakers to find ways of reducing toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from diesel cars.

For years, carmakers have been building diesel cars for the European market that pass the emissions test, but are much dirtier in conditions that are not replicated by that test.

The scandal, known as Dieselgate, began in September 2015 with the revelation that the Volkswagen Group had equipped diesel cars in the US with emissions-cheating software, known as defeat devices. It quickly emerged that 8.5 million cars in Europe were affected.

But in her letter, Bienkowska reminded ministers that “many other brands show too high emission levels in real driving conditions”.

As of 1 September 2017, carmakers will be required to pass a new test, which is conducted on the road, instead of in a laboratory. But according to Bienkowska, the introduction of that test “is not enough”, since cars that are currently on the road have already been approved.

“We have to remove non-compliant cars from the market and circulation as soon as possible,” Bienkowska said.

She also called for “additional voluntary measures of the automotive sector to rapidly reduce NOx emissions of the existing diesel fleet in Europe”.

The commissioner praised Germany, France, and the Netherlands in that regard, and called on other member states to follow their example.

Prosecutors in Germany and France have opened investigations, while the Dutch type approval authority, RDW, has challenged some (but not all) carmakers' use of defeat devices.

“I call for a Europeanisation of these national measures which is not (yet) possible under the current EU type-approval legislation,” Bienkowska said, noting a “harmonised European approach” is needed.

Type approval is mainly a national affair, whereby a car approved in one EU country is automatically approved to be sold in all EU member states.

After the summer, EU lawmakers are expected to negotiate on a commission proposal that would increase the role of the EU executive.

“We need mutual trust between our authorities, otherwise even the new type approval system will not work and the only alternative would be an EU agency; something I did not propose initially, but some still see as a way forward,” said Bienkowska.

While emissions standards for diesel passenger cars have become stricter over the years, the actual level of emissions on the road has not decreased in parallel.

As a result, many city governments have banned certain diesel cars from their inner cities.

According to Bienkowska these diesel bans, if unavoidable, “should follow similar criteria across the single market”.

Lost patience

Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), which represents some fifty environmental groups from Europe, has also seen the letter.

“The commissioner has clearly lost patience with carmakers and their friends in governments, who have failed to take action against the 35 million dirty diesel cars on the EU’s roads,” said T&E's clean vehicles campaigner, Greg Archer.

“It is time for the industry to clean up the air and the mess they have created by recalling cars and upgrading the emissions control systems,” he added.

Why doesn't the EU have a road transport agency?

There are EU agencies covering maritime transport, aviation, and railways, but road transport never got its own. Some MEPs are now advocating one, to the chagrin of many member states.

EU cautious with German diesel plan

The European Commission welcomed the German carmakers' pledge to update software in diesel cars, but is waiting for details on how emissions will be reduced.

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