Report Dieselgate reoladed

How much carmakers’ lobbying on new EU emissions rules will cost Europeans

By aligning itself with the recommendations of the car industry when adopting new emission standards, the European Union could be caving in to the industry lobby at the expense of taxpayers' money and citizens' health, according to confidential documents obtained by Voxeurop.

Published on 7 November 2023 at 07:30
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Part I

How weak Euro 7 standards could cost up to €100 billion in health and environmental damage by 2050

The policy advisers of the European Commission sound the alarm. Weak and delayed enforcement of the Euro 7 standards, setting new requirements for car emissions, may very well cause an estimated €100 billion health and environmental damages until 2050 due to excess pollution from internal combustion engines (ICE). Estimates are based on analysis performed exclusively for Voxeurop by the Commission consultants, the Consortium for ultra-low vehicle emissions (CLOVE).  Europe’s top automotive experts scrutinised the watered down text  agreed at the end of September by the 27 governments at the Council (the EU co-legislator together with the European Parliament elected by citizens). This loss of €4 billion a year could be averted if European carmakers forfeited a tiny fraction of their annual fortune, doubled to €73 billion since 2019, to produce cleaner models. 

Through its vote at the plenary session on 9 November, the European Parliament holds the responsibility to confirm or overturn the Council decision squandering the EU ambition to crack down on the toxic legacy of Dieselgate. The scandal in 2015 exposed manufacturers' tricks to circumvent the rules capping tailpipe fumes through doctoring the levels of NO (or NOx, Nitrogen Oxide), one of the primary contaminants released by combustion (mostly diesel) engines. NO is rapidly converted into Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), which causes 49,000 premature deaths per year in the EU and indirectly contributes to the formation of Particulate Matter (PM) which is even more harmful: the estimated number of excess annual deaths is 238,000.

Half of these premature deaths could be avoided if cars had the same on-the-road emissions as reported in the laboratory tests conducted for the approval of new models. Although in the wake of Dieselgate the EU tightened its surveillance rules by coupling the traditional laboratory tests with mandatory driving tests on the road, legal emission limits are often exceeded also by new car models.

Along with cases of clear violations and lack of controls by national authorities, excess emissions mostly happen because of legislative loopholes: indeed, the tests for the approval of new models are not required to capture all real driving conditions (for example cold environments and short trips) and measurements do not cover the entire vehicle's lifetime.

That is why the Euro 7 standard proposed by the Commission aimed to tighten both emission limits and testing procedures for cars, vans and heavy-duty vehicles like buses and lorries.

However, the Council approved a text which essentially continued with the almost 10-year-old Euro 6 norms for exhaust emissions (with tighter limits only for heavy-duty vehicles), while implementing limits for PM from brakes and tyres and requiring an emissions monitoring system ensuring long term compliance. Diesel-fuelled cars are still allowed to pollute more than petrol ones. 

Carmakers obtain the permit to over-pollute

“Spain, holding the Council rotating presidency during the second semester of 2023, played a key role in killing Euro 7,”  said Anna Krajinska, Manager on vehicle emissions and air quality at the NGO Transport & Environment. “On the first day of the Presidency, Renault confirmed a huge investment in ICE cars in Spain and only days after the proposals were agreed in Council, Spain’s trade minister boasted of how a weak Euro 7 will help secure further carmaker investment in Spain.”

Early this year Volkswagen (VW) and Stellantis also announced big plans on hybrid and Electric Vehicles (EVs) in the Iberian country. Through the silent barter offered by Trade Minister Héctor Gómez the industry received a gift worth billions in avoided eco-expenditure. This will lead to around 47-58% less public benefits up to 2050, compared to the Commission's proposal, according to forecasts provided to Voxeurop by CLOVE consultants which advised the Commission on the Euro 7 policy options.  

“In exchange for every extra billion saved by a few carmakers, millions of European citizens will suffer serious diseases, hospitalisations and other social costs, shouldering the €27 billion paid to shareholders between 2019 and 2023 by the five largest automotive groups in Europe (VW, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Stellantis and Renault),” Krajinska added. “Member states should be ashamed for putting profiteers’ interests over the health of their own citizens.”

These comments measure the success of the pressures exerted on the EU institutions by the European Car Manufacturers Association (ACEA), currently chaired by Renault CEO Luca de Meo. The Brussels-based industry  platform increased its lobbying spending since the discussions on Euro 7 started in 2018 with preliminary recommendations made by the CLOVE consortium.

Confidential correspondence seen by Voxeurop revealed how carmakers convinced EU high-ranking officials to weaken their Euro 7 plans from the outset with the argument that investments should prioritise the transition to emissions-free electromobility by 2035. 

“We have invested significantly in technology for e-mobility to the tune of more than 250 billion,“ said an ACEA spokesperson. 

“The Commission ask us to work towards the 2035 zero emissions target while at the same time converting to Euro 7 through committing resources and engineers back to combustion engine technology which will become obsolete in just a few years from now,” Matthias Johansson, Head of Public Affairs at carmaker Volvo, told Voxeurop. Volvo intends to produce only EVs as of 2030. 

Indulging in lengthy behind-the-scenes consultations with ACEA, the Commissioner for Internal Market Therry Breton, former lobbyist for the tech company Atos, of which he was the CEO, and frontrunner candidate as the next EU Commission President, resolved to present a formal proposal only in November 2022, with a one-year delay. The text set looser requirements (i.e. emission limits to 60 mg/km) than those outlined in the greener policy options recommended by CLOVE (limits 20 to 30 mg/km).

The most balanced option would have decreased nitric oxide (NOx) emissions from cars and heavy-duty vehicles by an average 44% until 2050. The projected savings lost 18% with the “Breton” text, according to a study on the impact of Euro 7 on air quality, decreasing to 35-40%. They further shrunk to 15-25% with the EU Council decision (bringing to zero cars emissions reduction), according to estimates shared by CLOVE consultants with Voxeurop

A study by the research organisation International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) demonstrates that the proposal availed by Breton, if enforced timely in 2025, would cut 1 million tons of emissions and would prevent 7,300 premature deaths until 2050 (with 56% attributed to reductions in emissions from heavy-duty vehicles). As a result of the industry’s time-wasting strategy and the vote delayed by the European Parliament centre-right majority, the proposed application date has been postponed to 2026/2027 for cars and 2028/2029 for heavy-duty vehicles. This extension may cause over 1,700 premature deaths in the EU.  

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