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Controversy over new EU diesel emissions test

New test procedures for automotive diesel emissions have been agreed by EU states, but critics say big loopholes remain, with Greens in the EU parliament calling the new rules "scandalous" and "a sham".

European Union member states agreed in principle on Wednesday to introduce new testing practices to check the level of poisonous emissions from the diesel engines of new car models. The new tests will require nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels to be measured during special road tests, which will more closely resemble real-world driving conditions, in addition to laboratory conditions.

"The EU is the first and only region in the world to mandate these robust testing methods," said the relevant EU Commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska, in announcing the new rules. Bienkowska is EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs.

Industry-friendly 'compromise'

The new rules and testing procedures will only take effect in September 2017, and only for new-model cars. New cars of existing models won't have to meet the new standards for another two years after that.

Moreover, member states agreed that on-road NOx results will be allowed to be twice as high as lab emissions for a 28-month period after the new tests are introduced. Even after that, under the new rules, on-road emissions will be allowed to hit levels 50 percent over those measured under laboratory test conditions.

Elzbieta Bienkowska

EU Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska is taking heat from environmentalists over the delay in applying new rules

Environmental protection advocates have reacted to Wednesday's announcement with surprise and anger.

"This is a scandalous and cynical decision by EU governments," said EU lawmaker Bas Eickhout of the Alliance of Greens in the European Parliament, adding: "This new test... is a sham."

A scandalous response to a scandal?

The new rules were a response to the crisis generated by revelations in September that Volkswagen, Europe's biggest carmaker, had installed emissions-test cheating software in a certain type of diesel engine that it built into millions of cars. The software recognised when the car was being tested in an emissions lab - the only condition under which the wheels would spin but the car wouldn't move - and in that condition, it adjusted engine performance to minimize emissions.

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Back on the road, the software adjusted the engines to prioritise fuel economy and performance instead - and the ensuing levels of NOx emissions were up to 35 times higher than in the lab, as US researchers discovered by using special emissions testing equipment to measure VW diesel car emissions under actual road-driving conditions.

The cheating wasn't really news

The European Commission, which is the executive body - the "administration" - of the European Union, has been aware for years that there is a big gap between the NOx emissions and fuel economy performance of cars in real-world driving conditions, and their results as measured by the regulator's standard laboratory tests. Environmental and health advocates had urged action to adopt more realistic tests for years, as well.

But it took the huge on-going scandal over 'sVW emissions scam to induce the EU to move ahead with changes - even though nitrogen oxides from diesel cars have long been known to be a prime source of air pollution, and the deadly effects of that pollution have long been known, too.

NOx pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU yearly, according to European Commission estimates, and additionally causes up to 940 billion euros ($1 trillion) in health bills each year.

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"We now have the political momentum for a radical overhaul," said Catherine Bearder, a British Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, in a statement on Tuesday.

Cynicism and disappointment

But the overhaul turns out not to have been so radical after all.

"European governments are effectively rewarding the cheaters," said Jiri Jerabek of Greenpeace, an environmental conservation advocacy group. He called the EU's move "outrageous".

Greg Archer of the Transport and Environment campaign group acidly observed that: "It seems governments would rather citizens die as a result of diesel exhaust emissions than require carmakers to fit technology typically costing [just] 100 euros" per car.

Wednesday's decision was taken by a panel of experts representing each of the EU's 28 member states. It must still be vetted and approved by EU parliaments and governments. However, for procedural reasons they have limited scope to make changes.

nz / uhe (dpa, Reuters, AP)

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