Firmer rules needed to root out Dieselgate Inc.
Volkswagen’s use of illegal defeat devices in emissions testing will take centre stage at the European Parliament once more, when the Committee on Emissions Measurements in the Automotive Sector (EMIS) comes together for a final vote next Tuesday (28 February).
This could be a turning point for stricter monitoring and regulation of the car industry in Europe if the vote on the committee’s ‘Dieselgate report makes a strong case for overhauling the way car emissions are controlled.
The positive impact on public health would certainly be considerable. Around 75,000 people died prematurely due to toxic pollutants in diesel fumes in 2015 alone.
Parliament’s inquiry into Dieselgate has revealed that problems with emission tests went far beyond Volkswagen’s use of illegal defeat devices. The report puts the European Commission and member states on the spot: the committee’s investigation has exposed a culture of looking the other way.
Both the European Commission and member states turned a blind-eye to industry-wide abuse of the system for emission regulation. As part of its "better regulation" agenda, the commission even invited the car industry to shape regulation as well as its enforcement.
Unsurprisingly then, the car industry managed to delay the implementation of existing emission standards and monopolised the commission’s influential high level group on the competitiveness and sustainable growth of the automotive industry (CARS 21) since it was formed in 2006. The resulting bias clearly shows in the group’s recommendations.
CARS 21 pushed market-driven solutions, promoted industry-friendly impact assessments that would pit any policy’s overall benefits against its costs to business, and argued for voluntary agreements instead of binding regulation.
Concrete new policies proposed by CARS 21 included the replacement of EU-specific emission testing methods with weaker global standards, self-testing instead of fully independent assessments and lead-in times for any new rules that would delay their coming into force.
While that is certainly in keeping with the simplifying and non-interventionist rhetoric and aims of better regulation, it fails to prioritise central sustainability criteria, which alongside competition aspects were meant to be a focus for the group.
With evidence of negative health impacts of diesel pollution mostly sidelined, it is perhaps unsurprising that public health considerations have not informed much commission action on emission regulation. Cities across the EU keep choking on toxic traffic fumes.
But the Volkswagen scandal has lifted the lid on a culture of industry self-regulation and light-touch rule-making that is facilitated by European decision makers and that reveals the flaws in the EU’s Better Regulation agenda.
It shows how the paradigm of simplified regulation meant to improve competitiveness has, in fact, allowed the car industry to set the agenda – where manufacturers cried wolf whenever suggested measures might have affected their profits.
Better regulation has essentially given industry a lever to delay and weaken the EU’s commitment to more accurately test emissions from vehicles on the road.
Tuesday’s vote on the final EMIS committee report is a good starting point to unravel the mistakes that were made in the past and push the commission and member states to protect people from the abuse of the car lobby.
But in order to keep industry influence at bay and rebalance future policy-making in favour of public interest, the commission must also urgently rethink its better regulation agenda. This programme allowed the car industry to gain excessive influence over decision-making in the first place.
Dieselgate is merely a case study of the way in which better regulation can give industry representatives the upper hand. It is a dynamic which has also already taken hold across many other areas of EU legislation.
Any agenda that aims to improve regulatory processes needs to ensure that policies and legislation actually achieve their environmental, health, social or related public interest objectives. The reduction of costs for business must be secondary to that.