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VW smog scandal shows failings

Andrea Rönsberg, BrusselsOctober 23, 2015

The Volkswagen scandal has exposed the fact that EU rules on car emissions are not being enforced and that test procedures don't reflect reality. Next week will see changes to that system - but not substantial ones.

exhaust fumes
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Elsbieta Bienkowska did not mince words when reacting to the revelations that Volkswagen had manipulated emissions.

"Our message is clear: zero tolerance on fraud and rigorous compliance with EU rules," said Bienkowska, the EU's industry commissioner.

The words came in the wake of "dieselgate," in which the US Environmental Protection Agency exposed that German carmaker Volkswagen had used software to manipulate emissions readings of diesel cars to meet EPA regulations.

Volkswagen later admitted to having used the software in 11 million sold all over the world.

But environmental activists paint a picture that shows not-so-rigorous compliance with EU legislation on car emissions - and a lot of tolerance for that.

Rules that are not followed

EU legislation on the subject dates back several years, to 2007. It states the importance of reducing vehicle emissions to achieve such air-quality objectives as "reducing harmful effects on human health."

There were 430,000 premature deaths in EU member states in 2011 because of bad air, according to the European Environment Agency.

The 2007 emissions regulation prohibits "the use of defeat devices that reduce the effectiveness of emission control systems" and mandates that by 2009 EU member states introduce penalties to impose on manufacturers who flout the law.

So far, not a single member state has introduced such penalties.

EU industry commissioner Elsbieta Bienkowska
Industry Commissioner Elsbieta Bienkowska said there would be no tolerance for fraud.Image: DW/M. Pedziwol

Nor have there been any investigations into defeat devices - though a 2013 report by the European Commission's Joint Research Center was only one example detailing the possibility that such devices could exist and be used to activate emissions control systems.

"Years have passed, but the European Commission hasn't taken any action," says Axel Friedrich, who used to head up a department at Germany's Federal Environment Agency and now works as a consultant.

He says the Commission has shown itself capable of taking action to ensure compliance with its regulations and directives in other matters - for instance, by taking member states to the European Court of Justice or opening infringement procedures for air pollution.

Earlier this month Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch member of the European Parliament's liberal bloc, also asked why no investigations and infringement procedures had been launched with regard to violations of emission limits.

Representatives say, though, that the Commission established a working group to develop a new procedure to reflect emissions on the road rather than tests done under lab conditions back in 2011.

Powerful automotive lobby

Friedrich says there is a simple explanation of why the Commission has not been more active in enforcing the regulations: Relations between the car industry and politics are too close - both in Germany and in Brussels.

According to the Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group that aims to expose the influence by corporations and lobby groups on EU policymaking, the car lobby is one of the most powerful in Brussels, spending about 18 million euros in 2014 to influence climate, energy, trade and transport policy.

Aside from the question of political will, there is that of political power. The European Union has no equivalent of the EPA. In order to sell cars in the United States, manufacturers must demonstrate compliance with the Clean Air Act and EPA regulations; in Europem, manufacturers can choose a member state in which to seek certification.

Feinstaub Luftverschmutzung Messung Berlin
Axel Friedrich started out as a technical chemist and is passionate about measuring - and reducing - emissions.Image: Marggraf/DUH

"We have 28 European agencies for certification," Friedrich says. "They compete with each other. And if one manufacturer has problems getting a car certified, he just takes it to another country."

Once a car type has been approved by one EU member state, that decision applies to the other 27 countries.

Yet, Friedrich says, creating a European agency to control compliance with emission regulations is not the way to go.

"I think there should be control of the national authorities instead," he says, arguing that car emissions are an environmental problem that responsible national agencies should be in charge of.

In the case of Germany, certification is in the hands of the Federal Motor Transport Authority. Friedrich's former employer, on the other hand, the Federal Environment Authority, "only has the power to admonish politicians: It can't recall cars."

Commission to introduce new test procedures

Though changes to national certification procedures do not appear imminent, the European Commission is in the process of overhauling test procedures.

Following years of consultations, the Commission is set to come forth on October 26 with a new regulation introducing a "real driving emission" test that better reflects normal conditions of use than lab procedures do.

The new test procedures, to be implemented in January, will involve a device to measure emissions attached to the rear of the car.

Testvorrichtung für Abgasrest im Realbetrieb Real drive emissions RED
The real drive emissions testImage: Axel Friedrich

In the initial phase, these new devices will only be used for monitoring purposes; they measure will not have an impact on certification.

Also, emission limits will be raised for this transition period, meaning that instead of the 80 milligrams of nitrogen oxides allowed to be emitted per kilometer (0.13 grams per mile) under the Euro 6 norm, cars will be allowed to emit more.

How long that first phase will last and by what factor emission limits will be raised is still being debated.

Friedrich calls the new test a step in the right direction - but only a very small step.

"Why do road tests and lab tests when you know lab tests won't show you real-life emissions?" he asks.

The only way to get test results that reflect reality is to test randomly, he says, like the EPA does in the United States.

However the European Union improves test procedures in the near future, enforcing emission limits appears likely to remain a sore spot for some time to come.

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