To us here at atw it’s strange how the EU, so full of rules, regulations and limits on pollutants, could have let the diesel dragon run so far from the cave.
The European Union (EU) is considered by some to have the most extensive environmental laws of any international organisation. Its environmental policy is significantly intertwined with other international and national environmental policies. The environmental legislation of the European Union also has significant effects on those of its member states. The European Union’s environmental legislation addresses issues such as acid rain, the thinning of the ozone layer, air quality, noise pollution, waste and water pollution. The Institute for European Environmental Policy estimates the body of EU environmental law amounts to well over 500 Directives, Regulations and Decisions.
Europe’s long love of diesel, which enjoys tax benefits in many countries, was driven by an ambition to fight climate change: diesels burn 20 percent less fuel. Now, the technology is used in more than half of all cars sold in the European Union.
But the more fuel-efficient the engines are, the more toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) they create. In London alone, NOx pollution causes the equivalent of up to 5,900 deaths a year, a recent King’s College study concluded. Most European cities habitually exceed the allowed NOx levels, often by a large margin. The transport sector, and diesel in particular, are mainly to blame.
It turns out the regulations were there, they just weren’t enforced regularly, or strictly, or both:
On average, new diesels sold in Europe in real use emit seven times more NOx than the official limits allow, a 2014 study of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a non-government organisation, showed.
Whoa. Seven times more NOx than allowed!? In such a highly-regulated, rich continent so able to apply this policy? But how?
VW equipped cars in the United States with “defeat devices” that damped down emissions during lab testing. In Europe, carmakers have had no need for such tricks, thanks to the leniency of the testing regime.
Ah, that’s how. So VW cheated in the US, but didn’t need to cheat in the EU because nobody was enforcing the policy.
Perhaps to blame is the disparate nature of the Union:
The European Commission not only has an exclusive right to propose new environmental policy, but it also has a responsibility to ensure the implementation of environmental rules. Therefore, since its creation in the 1950s the European Commission has been at the heart of the European Union. However, it did not set up a unit dedicated to environmental issues until the 1970s and a full Directorate General for the environment until 1981. Initially DG Environment was perceived as a relatively weak DG but it has gradually become more assertive through the development of technical and political expertise. However, the Commission still has to depend on member states to implement its policies.
Policy making in the EU can be extremely complex. It has been suggested that the policy making process is too densely populated with veto players (i.e. actors whose agreement is necessary for a policy to be adopted) for any single actor or group of actors (including the EU’s member states) to consistently control the direction of policy making. The result in environmental policy making has been widely depicted as being especially unpredictable, unstable and at times even chaotic. However, the European Commission, as a key player in the policy making process, has under pressure to develop ‘standard operating procedures’ for processing policy. This has led to a number of changes in policy making processes in recent years, including: adopting minimum standards of consultation; the impact assessment of all major policy proposals; and the earlier publication of its work programmes.
Turns out our (US) glacial pace on mainstreaming diesel technology into the private automobile industry wasn’t such a bad thing, despite the chorus of booing that would arise over here when this or that marque announced no diesel version of any particular model was bound for US shores. Just look on any car enthusiast site, like Car & Driver, for instance.