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2nd Mar 2024

EU Commission discussed emissions cheating in 2013

European industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska may have misinformed MEPs in the aftermath of the Volkswagen diesel scandal, by saying the Commission had "no indication" that car manufacturers were gaming the system of emissions testing.

The Financial Times revealed on Sunday (25 October) that as early as February 2013, at least two European commissioners were aware of car companies trying to conform to lab tests rather than reduce emissions of pollutants on the road.

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  • 'There are widespread concerns that performance has been tailored tightly to compliance with the test cycle'. (Photo: cosmo flash)

The British paper published a letter exchange between the environment and industry commissioners at the time, Slovenian Janez Potocnik and Italian Antonio Tajani, respectively.

Potocnik pointed out there was a "significant discrepancy between the certified emissions and those actually observed on the road". He noted this discrepancy is "a primary reason" why EU countries were unable to adhere to air quality limit values.

The commissioner also wrote that it appeared car manufacturers were producing their cars to pass the test, rather than to reduce emissions.

"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", Potocnik wrote.

"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", he added.

But last September, American authorities revealed that Europe's largest car manufacturer Volkswagen had been using illegal software – called 'defeat devices' – to cheat on emission tests. The cars' software "knew" when it was being tested and switched to a more economical mode than it would during normal driving conditions.

Following the revelations, many wondered why the scandal was not uncovered by European authorities. During a fierce debate at a European Parliament plenary session earlier in October, MEPs fired question after question towards Tajani's successor, industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska.

She denied that the Commission could have known about the scandal.

"The European Commission has not received any information before [the] official information of [US environmental agency] EPA. And not any piece of information was received by us, neither from EPA nor from any member state", she told MEPs.

In a written response, sent later this month, the Polish commissioner repeated her line.

"The Commission had no indications of defeat devices being used by car manufacturers in Europe", the response said.

"The risk of defeat devices was ... known to the Commission and Member States, but the Commission was not aware of any actual instances of fraud", wrote Bienkowska.

On Tuesday (27 October), the European Parliament will vote on a non-binding resolution about the emissions scandal. It will vote whether to call for an EU-wide investigation on emissions testing compliance.

If the Commission does carry out such an investigation, it may clear up allegations surrounding a second car manufacturer, which did the rounds last week.

A German environmental lobby group said it found that compared to lab tests, Opel diesel cars were emitting up to 17 times more NOx during normal driving conditions. Opel, a subsidiary company of General Motors, denied the accusations as "wrong and unfounded".

EU environment ministers will discuss the emissions scandal later on Monday in Luxembourg.

"We need a car industry which does not cheat, but respects air quality and our health", said Luxembourgish minister Carole Dieschbourg ahead of the meeting.

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